KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region — The Iraqi security forces maintain just one front near the ISIS-stronghold of Hawija, while Kurdish Peshmerga explained they control four fronts there and don’t foresee good coordination with Hashd units ahead of the long-delayed offensive.
The attack to retake the city, captured by ISIS in June 2014, has been repeatedly postponed to avoid triggering sectarian tensions in Sunni Arab lands.
The three factions poised to participate are the Iraqi security forces (ISF), Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary units (PMUs), and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
“The people of the Hawija area would like three forces to participate in it. You go to rescue rather than behead people. You go to rescue women and children. The Iraqi army, Kurdistan’s Peshmerga, the Iraqi federal police, and the international coalition forces will be taking part in it,” Wasta Rasul, the commander of the Peshmerga's south Kirkuk front, told Bahroz Faraidun, who is the host of the Rudaw TV program Top Story.
Hawija city, the center of the Hawija pocket, is about 55 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital of Kirkuk.
“Because the area is disputed, positions should be designated for each force with each having its own headquarters. This is when the Iraqi forces and Peshmerga near each other. They should have territory to protect
Rasul observed that the ISF and PMUs only “are in a small area in Hawija.”
“If you have noticed, from Tuz to Makhmour, there are Peshmerga forces of Kurdistan all around Hawija. There is only one front under the command of Iraq and Hashd al-Shaabi. And that is the Hamrin front,” he detailed.
The province is a diverse home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians. As one of the Kurdistani or disputed areas, it is claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.
“If Peshmerga don’t participate in the liberation of Hawija, this means you yourself gave an important area of Article 140 [in the Iraqi constitution] back to Iraq,” explained Rasul.
In the battle for Mosul, Peshmerga and ISF coordinated, allowing Iraqi units to pass through Kurdish-controlled fronts. However, Rasul isn’t sure that same coordination can happen in the fight for Hawija.
“The Iraqi army can go, but it will be difficult for us to allow the Hashd al-Shaabi. But we have plans and a map that is fixed for the commanders of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces,” he revealed.
Hashd units began mobilizing forces into Bashir village in southern Kirkuk in late July after Mosul finished.
In the recent battle for Tal Afar, ISF and Hashd units were paired together. They advanced from the east and south towards the district with Peshmerga maintaining a northern defensive line that prevented ISIS militants from fleeing into Syria and the Kurdistan Region.
In March 2015, ISIS released a video from Hawija showing at least 18 caged Peshmerga
being paraded down streets before cheering crowds. The video sparked outrage
from the victims’ families and on the streets in Kurdistan.
Rasul emphasized that the Peshmerga are trained in the Law of Armed Conflict and wouldn’t seek revenge.
“We are guided by the laws of war, not by emotions,” he said, adding that from one Hawija front alone, 21,000 IDPs have been sheltered in camps in Kirkuk. However, “We have information and we will arrest and try those who are wanted according to Article 4 – Terrorism.”
Peshmerga have said that coordination with Hashd units is difficult because they are not centralized. The Peshmerga control five areas
on four fronts to the north and east of the Hawija pocket. They have said they are waiting "zero hour" and have been making preparations for the past two years for the repeatedly delayed offensive.
Hawija is in the disputed territories claimed by both the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region's capital of Erbil.
The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat says the decision to commence Hawija operations ultimately lies in the hands of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also commander in chief of the armed forces. The Coalition estimates there are fewer than 1,000 fighters in the Hawija area.
Abadi countered and blamed the delay on a lack of Peshmerga coordination between diverse Kurdish players.
US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the former commander of the Coalition’s forces in Iraq and Syria, expressed that Kurdish Peshmerga have done “incredible work” in the fight against ISIS so far, and he is expecting “more contributions” in the offensive to retake Hawija.
“So, I am pretty happy with the contributions of the Peshmerga and there will be more contributions as we look towards Hawija, which is contained to the east entirely by the Kurdish Peshmerga,” Townsend told Pentagon reporters on September 7.
The liberation of Hawija will mark a milestone with the ISIS group being pushed out of territorial control of all areas in the north of the country. Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul was declared liberated on July 11 after a nine-month battle. Nineveh province was then announced as liberated after an 11-day fight for the city of Tal Afar on August 11.
“So people probably don't have a good appreciation for this, but I certainly do. The Peshmerga were instrumental in stopping the onslaught of ISIS in 2014 and 2015. Across much of northern Iraq, it was the Kurdish Peshmerga who held the line,” Townsend added.