Kirkuk Goveror Najmadin Karim. File photo: Rudaw
KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region— The operation to drive out ISIS militants from the Sunni stronghold of Hawija is delayed till the end of the ongoing offensive in Mosul and border regions near Syria, Kirkuk Governor Najmadin Karim said Tuesday amid growing pressure on Iraqi army to launch the operation.
The city and its immediate localities had a population of 500,000 people before it was captured by the ISIS militants in mid-2014 but it is estimated that around half of the residents have fled the area, mostly to the nearby Kirkuk city adding to its dramatic refugee crisis.
“They have openly said that before Mosul operation is complete, the Hawija offensive will not start and now they have also said that ISIS-held territories in Anbar province on the Jordan-Syria border must be liberated before the operation to retake Hawija begins,” Karim told reporters in Kirkuk after meeting with Arab Sunni groups who have demanded the government to step up the operation.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday that Hawija operation will begin after the liberation of Mosul from the ISIS militants where the extrimist group is engaged in fighting against the advancig Iraqi forces in the last remaining districts in western Mosul.
Iraqi forces have pushed back the militants in most areas near Hawija, and the city has virtually been sieged by Peshmerga forces since August last year. But the incursion of the army into the city has been postponed largely to avoid costly street and house to house clashes inside the city where ISIS has had time to build fortified bases including ditches protected by planted landmines.
Iraqi and Kurdish authorities also fear that incursion of the predominantly non-Sunni forces into the city could trigger a wider ethnic gun-battle across the contested areas else where in the country. Hawija has been at the center of multiple Sunni insurgencies and popular uprisings since 2004.
Sunni groups from Hawija have in the past shown support to participating in the operation and said over 6000 local volunteers are prepared to join the action to reduce Sunni anxiety in the face of an army offensive.
“We will put more pressure until our voice is heard and our areas liberated,” said Hatam Tayi, head of a Sunni faction from Hawija adding that a large demonstration will be held in Kirkuk in the coming days to pressure the government to launch the offensive.