Kurdish Peshmerga positions around the ISIS stronghold of Hawija are being fortified to halt attacks and the infiltration of militants. To end the risk to Kirkuk province, the Peshmerga believe Hawija has to be liberated from the extremist group. But, as of now, no agreement has been reached to launch the offensive.
ISIS’ continued presence in Hawija poses direct threats to the four provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala, and Salahadin in northern Iraq. According to information from the Iraqi intelligence agency, some 1,500 ISIS militants are in the city with 50 car bombs ready to be used. From the Hawija area, ISIS has frequently carried out attacks on Peshmerga positions and civilians, often causing casualties.
According to Peshmerga and Kurdish officials, ISIS has adopted a new strategy in the area, regrouping in the Hamrin mountains and around their stronghold of Hawija, establishing relations with local people and moving towards guerrilla-style tactics as they lose territory elsewhere in Iraq and Syria.
The Peshmerga are ready for an offensive on Hawija from five fronts around the city: Daquq, Khurmatu, south Kirkuk, east Kirkuk and Gwer-Makhmour, while Iraqi forces are located on the Hamrin plains, Fatha near Baiji, and the left side of Shargat.
South Kirkuk front
Sadda village, south of Kirkuk, is where the Peshmerga and ISIS positions are closest.
“Threats continue to be posed to Kirkuk as long as Hawija is not liberated because the ISIS militants who disappeared in Mosul have now come to Hawija,” warned Qadir Majeed, a commander from the Peshmerga’s fifth infantry brigade.
“But the Peshmerga are always vigilant, removing the threats to some extent,” he assured.
ISIS has military movements in Makhmour and Gwer, west of Kirkuk. The commander of the Peshmerga forces in west Kirkuk, Kamal Kirkuki, explained to Rudaw, ISIS “have changed the way they operate: kill, inflict harm, and disappear.”
ISIS is rebranding itself in the area, Kirkuki said.
“They have even set up an organization for post-ISIS named Fajrulazeem,” said Kirkuki, adding, “They work as a sleeper cell, active in the Sunni villages and cities.”
Chami Rokhana – the most dangerous spot
The distance between Daquq front and west Kirkuk is just 70 kilometers. Many well-fortified watch posts have been erected. There is a special Kurdish Kakei force tasked with defending their villages and areas here.
“We have knowledge that an ISIS regiment in the area is being replaced every now and then, receiving reinforcements during the night,” Mohammed Ali, a commander from the Kakei Peshmerga force, told Rudaw.
Chami Rokhana is considered the most dangerous area where ISIS militants are able to move around and infiltrate behind Peshmerga lines. It is mostly forests and bushes. The Peshmerga were forced to burn down some of the dense forests in order to enhance their visibility and make it easier to maneuver.
This spot is the separation point between Daquq and Tuz Khurmatu. In the past, the area was a no man’s land. The Peshmerga have now moved their forces into the area in order to remove threats to Kakei villages in particular and Daquq in general.
The Peshmerga now have a 34-kilometer long border here with Hawija.
“When ISIS was extremely strong, they did not manage to enter the Kakei villages,” said Mariwan Taha, a Peshmerga official within a Kakei Peshmerga battalion. “Now they cannot do it all.”
He, like many others, warned of the dangers of ISIS remaining in Hawija.
ISIS has taken down its flags in the region, a sign of a new tactic the group pursues against the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga, on alert, have taken new measures, too.
“They are trying to locate spots through which they could infiltrate behind the Peshmerga,” Aras Qadir, a Peshmerga official said. “They have changed tactics by sending small groups and suicide bombers.”
Tuz Khurmatu front
Traveling from Daquq to the Khurmatu front, the first checkpoint is patrolled by the Hashd al-Shaabi.
There are 20 kilometers between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, which ISIS takes advantage of to move its militants from Hawija to Diyala and Tikrit areas via the Hamrin mountain range.
Most of the ISIS movement here is in Zarga village. According to regional officials, over the past three months, hundreds of ISIS militants have used the area to cross into Hawija.
The Hamrin mountain range nearby Hamrin town is under the control of the army and Hashd. ISIS militants attack them from Hamrin dam. Every two to three kilometers, there is a watch post – either Hashd or army. Here, ISIS is mainly active at night.
“This road is closed after 8pm and we go over that dirt mound. This is an important spot. Many of us were martyred there, because on the other side there is a cross road leading you to Hawija,” said Abu Hassan, a Hashd al-Shaabi fighter.
The Iraqi army’s 43th brigade of the 20th infantry division is stationed in the Hararat area located at the end of Baiji refinery. ISIS and Iraqi forces have the barrels of their weapons pointed at each other where they come as close as just 600 meters apart.
“ISIS is a threat, be it in Hawija or another place,” Mohammed Liaaibi, an Iraqi army commander warned. “They are a cancer and must be uprooted.”
He said they have prepared a plan to launch an offensive against ISIS in Hawija.
“We are waiting for zero hour,” he said.