The Iraqi flag replaced the Kurdistan one on Kirkuk’s Peshmerga statue, guarding over the northern gate to the city, when control of the city was taken over by Iraqi forces in October. Photo: Hiwa Hussamadin/Rudaw
Despite the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has declared the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, remnants of the group are reemerging in Kirkuk Province where Iraqi forces have, so far, proven unable to adequately fill the vacuum left by the hasty withdraw of Kurdish Peshmerga forces in mid-October.
On December 9, Abadi announced ISIS's defeat in Iraq. The physical caliphate the group had erected on captured Iraqi territory has indeed been successfully destroyed. However, they are already reverting to their roots as a non-state terrorist group which uses guerrilla tactics against their many adversaries. One area where they have had some limited success in carrying out such hit-and-run attacks is in Kirkuk following Iraq's ouster of Kurdish forces from there almost three months ago.
A mere week after the Iraqis drove ISIS from Hawija in Kirkuk on October 8, in an operation made much easier for them by prior Peshmerga efforts in securing routes into that town, they stormed into Kirkuk and seized it from the Kurds. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose Peshmerga constituted the largest and predominant Kurdish military force in Kirkuk, promptly withdrew all their forces from the entire province on October 16.
The Kurds defended Kirkuk against ISIS since taking complete control over it in June 2014 when the Iraqi military fled, following the infamous ISIS takeover of Mosul the same month, and left the region undefended. The rapid October 16 evacuation of tens of thousands of Peshmerga and security forces – who had a very good three-year track record of locating ISIS sympathizers and sleeper cells and foiling their terrorist plots – predictably created a security vacuum the militants are attempting to exploit to their advantage.
"The October federal takeover of Kirkuk has led to new instability in the province," Musings on Iraq author Joel Wing told Rudaw English. "There are continued attacks by the Islamic State [ISIS], but also plenty of political violence as well. The Turkmen Front, for example, has had its offices bombed and shot at several times in various locations."
"Islamic State is also taking advantage of the situation because the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces are more concerned about facing off against each other in many areas rather than hunting down insurgents," he elaborated.
Following the demoralizing loss of Kirkuk, the Peshmerga engaged Iraqi military and Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi along the Kurdistan Region’s frontiers, notably knocking out an American-made Iraqi M1 Abrams main battle tank at the Pirde border-crossing on October 20. These clashes were halted as a result of a ceasefire implemented a week later.
More recently, on December 26, Peshmerga forces in Kifri
south of Sulaimani Province engaged in a tense standoff with Iraqi forces. This ended when the Iraqis withdrew to their previous positions and both sides agreed they would coordinate against any ISIS remnants in the region.
After these standoffs, Iraqi forces early this January began a large-scale operation
in Kirkuk's south and west to rout the remaining militants. As part of this endeavour they are using armoured forces (including the army's powerful 9th Armoured Division) and Hashd fighters backed by air support.
Wing points out that Hawija "is a large rural area that has been an insurgent hot spot for years and, like other parts of Iraq, if a permanent presence is not established the militants will move back in. That happened in Hawija, and is the reason why there is a large security operation going on there currently."
Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute and a leading Iraq analyst, told Rudaw English that ISIS's "bounceback in Hawija is unrelated to the October [Iraqi] takeover" of Kirkuk.
Hawija aside, having pushed out the Peshmerga from the rest of Kirkuk the Iraqis need to provide security for, and stabilize, the entire province themselves – if they do not reestablish a joint security arrangement with the Kurds – which they have not yet shown any real adeptness in doing.
"Today conditions in the area are like those in the days of Saddam Hussein. It is very bad. There must be joint efforts by Peshmerga forces and security units as in the days before ISIS," Iraqi member of parliament Sahawan Abdullah, who is from Kirkuk, recently told Al-Monitor.
For Kurds, memories of Saddam Hussein's Arabization of the region – the forced deportation of Kurds and importation of Arab settlers to alter Kirkuk's demography – have been particularly vivid since October when approximately 180,000 civilians, mostly Kurds, were displaced by that Iraqi action. Moreover, the presence of some of the more sectarian Shiite Hashd forces ran the grave risk of inflaming sectarian schisms in that Sunni-majority province of the kind ISIS, and its al-Qaeda forebearer, skillfully capitalized upon elsewhere in Iraq over the years.
On the prospect of a joint security arrangement between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, as existed before June 2014, Knights anticipates that: "Kurds will probably not return to Kirkuk as the kind of rulers they were since 2014, but they may still hold a lead in the new provincial council and elect a Kurdish governor if they stick together as one bloc with great discipline."
"The new security arrangements will see the Kurds functioning as one of many security providers, not the main security agency," he elaborated.
Such arrangements may prove essential in the long-term to fill the aforementioned security vacuum in the province created by the tumultuous events of October.
"That being said," Knights concluded, "Kirkuk was lost in a day and it is possible, if unlikely, that it could be regained in a day."