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ISIS Fighters in Iraq Attack Kirkuk, Diverting Attention From Mosul

Facing a broad offensive from Iraqi and Kurdish troops, the Islamic State has defended villages around Mosul with its signature tactics of suicide car attacks and roadside bombs. But on Friday morning, militants attacked the strategic oil city of Kirkuk, far to the east, in the manner of a conventional army.

Dozens of uniformed Islamic State fighters, some of whom were believed to be part of sleeper cells and others who drove into the city in vehicles, assaulted Kirkuk, setting off gun battles in the heart of the city that lasted from dawn into the night. Imams shut down all mosques in the city, canceling Friday Prayer, as the city was turned into an urban battle zone that was livestreamed for much of the day by Kurdish news outlets.

The battle scenes and the sound of automatic gunfire in Kirkuk were reminiscent of the Islamic State's brazen march across northern Iraq two years ago, when Mosul and other cities were first seized by the group.

The group's sudden counterattack on Friday also involved suicide bombings on police positions inside the city, and gunmen later took up positions in a mosque, a school and a hotel, and on top of other buildings. The government quickly instituted a curfew, ordering civilians to shelter indoors.

A number of the gunmen, presumably after exhausting their supplies of ammunition, set off suicide belts. By Friday evening, with fighting still continuing, local officials estimated that 40 people had been killed, 30 of them members of the local security forces. Among the dead was a reporter, Ahmet Herceroglu of Turkmeneli TV, who was killed by a sniper.

Civilians grabbed their guns and joined the fight. One man, speaking to the local television channel Rudaw, seemed to relish the chance to fight the Islamic State.

"No matter how much ammo they have, we do not fear them," the man said.

But the sudden threat the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State were able to pose to Kirkuk was felt far beyond that region. Later in the evening, fearing additional counterattacks by the Islamic State, officials announced a curfew in Tikrit, which fell in the initial rush by the militants in 2014 and was taken back last year.

The attack on Kirkuk -- a resource-rich city that has been under the Iraqi Kurds' control for more than two years -- diverted attention, at least for a day, from the five-day offensive on Mosul.

Backed by air support from the American-led coalition, tens of thousands of fighters, including Iraqi and Kurdish government forces and allied militias, have been advancing on three fronts, trying to clear villages around Mosul in the opening phase of an operation that officials have said could take weeks or months.

With its counterattack, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, demonstrated its ability to stage assaults in Iraqi urban areas even as it became encircled in Mosul, the largest city it controls in Syria or Iraq.

It was also a potent reminder that even if Mosul were wrested from the Islamic State, the group's campaign of violence could live on for some time, particularly if it held on to its appeal among disenfranchised Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

Some Kurdish officials claimed that at least some of the militants had entered Kirkuk in the guise of civilians fleeing violence from areas of fighting between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State.

Whether true or not, the statements amplified already heightened fears that many ISIS fighters could slip out of Mosul as displaced civilians, only to set up shop elsewhere as guerrilla insurgents.

As the militants attacked Kirkuk, a separate attack Friday morning involving three suicide bombers occurred at a power station in Dibis, a town north of the city, killing more than a dozen workers, including some from Iran, according to Abdullah Noor al-Deen, the mayor of Dibis.

On Friday, United Nations human rights officials said that Islamic State forces had killed civilians who rose up against them or were suspected of disloyalty as Iraqi forces closed in on Mosul.

The United Nations has corroborated reports that Islamic State fighters had shot dead at least 40 civilians in one village close to Mosul, said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, adding that the episode was still under investigation.

Since Monday, Islamic State militants have forced several hundred residents of outlying villages to move to Mosul, Ms. Shamdasani said, expressing concern that fighters were using civilians in the city as human shields.

At the same time, American officials said that some of the Islamic State's senior leaders had already left Mosul in the days before the battle kicked off, probably fleeing to Syria or other parts of Sunni-controlled western Iraq. Some of these leaders may have shaved their beards, discarded their weapons and sought to blend in with the thousands of civilians on the move.

"We've got indications that leaders have left," Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, the commander of American ground forces in Iraq, said on Thursday. "A lot of foreign fighters we expect will stay because they're not going to be able to exfiltrate as easily as some of the local fighters or the local leadership."

Still, United States officials said that not all of the leadership had left. And they said they had not seen any appreciable number of militants fleeing the city in the first few days of main conflict.

[Source: By Tim Arango, The New York Times, Erbil, 21Oct16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 25Oct16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.