Kurdish Peshmerga forces on frontlines against ISIS in southern Kirkuk. Rudaw photo
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Iraqi government plans to advance military operations against ISIS in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and Anbar province while delaying an offensive in Hawija, a top Peshmerga official has said.
The move is the opposite of what Kurds want to see. Kurdish leadership have warned against any further delay to the Hawija operation as ISIS presence in the area poses a security threat to Kirkuk.
"Nothing is official yet, but we have been informed in our meeting with the coalition that after Mosul, Tal Afar and Ramadi operations will take place and after them Hawija," Chief of Staff of the Peshmerga Ministry Jabar Yawar told Rudaw English on Sunday.
Yawar added that in their military meetings with coalition partners, they have demanded the prioritization of the Hawija operation, noting that the town is just 30 kilometres west of Kirkuk and includes a wide expanse of territory with three other significant towns.
Asked to comment on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's comments in early June claiming the Hawija operation would begin soon, Yawar said "They keep saying it will soon begin and until now no time frame has been set."
ISIS still enjoys a considerable amount of control over territory in northern Iraq despite major setbacks the group has recently suffered at the hands of Iraqi armed forces. The extremist group still holds Tal Afar west of Mosul, Ana, Qaim, Rawa, and segments of territories in Rutba, as well as the Qaim border crossing in Anbar, Rashad, Riyaz, some five hundred villages in Kirkuk, and a number of villages and areas in western Diyala province.
Chiefs of Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab tribes got together on Sunday and unanimously called on the Iraqi government to decide on the start of the Hawija operation. They say Hawija has become a safe haven for ISIS militants who pose a threat not only to Kirkuk, but the whole of Iraq.
"On behalf of Kirkuk tribal chiefs, we are calling, and have several times held press conferences and called on general commander of the Iraqi armed forces, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to start the Hawija liberation operation," Ismael Hadidi, head of the Hadidi tribe said in a press conference.
"They have always assured us that after Mosul, Hawija liberation operation will start. Now that the Mosul operation is coming to an end and is in its last phase, we are, therefore, reminding them through this press conference that they should start the Hawija liberation operation."
He also called on armed forces to "mobilize their troops and resume operations. Controlling Hawija should be postponed no longer."
Failing to do so, he warned "will pose threats to Tuz and other areas, particularly south of Kirkuk."
He said he preferred the involvement of all parties in the operation so that "no violation will happen."
Peshmerga, Iraqi forces, and Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi will likely all take part in the offensive when it does occur, though there has been some opposition to the inclusion of the Hashd in an operation to liberate a Sunni-majority area.
Hadidi urged "strong coordination" between Erbil and Baghdad during the offensive, similar to what happened in the Mosul operation.
He said any attempt to deteriorate Kirkuk’s security will be "foiled."
"We are demanding dear Prime Minister Dr. Haider al-Abadi to free Hawija for us as soon as possible. In fact, Hawija is not a threat to Kirkuk alone, but the whole of Iraq," Osman Zangana, head of Zangana tribe said also at the press conference.
Militants have launched numerous attacks against Kurdish Peshmerga forces south of Kirkuk in the past three years and therefore it is seen as a major threat to Kirkuk’s security and stability by Kurdish military leaders.
ISIS has picked up the scale of their attacks recently. Militants have attacked Peshmerga positions six times in one month alone.
Peshmerga forces west of Tuz Khurmatu have begun digging a 43-kilometer trench near the town and a watch tower to monitor the area and any ISIS movement as Kurdish forces have come under frequent attacks from the radical group in recent months.
Peshmerga officials say they have knowledge that ISIS is using the area for moving reinforcements from one place to another, particularly around Hamrin and even to Diyala province.