Peshmerga fortifying their positions south of Kirkuk this summer. File photo: Rudaw
KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region – The main offensive against ISIS won’t begin until after the referendum, a Peshmerga commander has revealed. Though some preparatory clearing of areas around Hawija could take place before the September 25 vote.
“Some areas around Hawija might be controlled on September 23,” said Kamal Kirkuki, a Peshmerga commander in western Kirkuk, explaining that small-scale operations might be launched against ISIS on Saturday prior to the final push on the ISIS stronghold.
The Kurdistan Region has scheduled a vote on independence for next Monday.
“Peshmerga, police, and security forces have geared up and will prevent any sort of objectionable events from happening," Kirkuki said, adding, “we have fortified our bases more and the Hawija liberation operation will certainly be launched after referendum.”
He explained that a military plan has already been outlined between Baghdad, Peshmerga, and the US-led coalition.
“The map and plan of liberating Hawija has been set out between the Kurdistan Region, Baghdad and the coalition… The plan is with the Kurdistan political leadership to respond to the coalition and Baghdad to clear all the areas of ISIS,” added Kirkuki.
Peshmerga are set to launch the offensive from six fronts.
Wasta Rasul, Peshmerga commander on the southern Kirkuk front, told Rudaw that the Iraqi army awaits a final response from the Peshmerga to launch the offensive.
“We are going to respond to them next week,” said Rasul, adding a significant number of forces are needed for the offensive as the area is large.
He also confirmed that “on the 23th the operation will start from Sharqat and Qaraj fronts.”
Hawija is about 55 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital of Kirkuk and surrounded by 500 villages and four other smaller towns, including Riaz and Rashad, Zab and Abbasi — all under control of ISIS.
The three forces poised to participate are the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi popular mobilization units (PMUs), and the Peshmerga, though there is tension between the Kurds and the Shiite force.
“From our side, we will not allow the Hashd al-Shaabi to participate in the battle. But the Iraqi army is in control of many areas from where they participate in the fight,” Rasul said.
Another Kurdish official said they held a meeting with top Shiite military leader Hadi al-Amiri last week and were assured that the Hashd al-Shaabi fighters expected to participate in the offensive are not from tribal forces. Amiri told the Kurds that nothing objectionable would occur.
On some fronts, the Peshmerga are a mere 700 meters away from ISIS positions. According to the Peshmerga, they share a 40-kilometer frontline with ISIS in west Kirkuk.
The UN has reported a sharp rise in civilian displacement as forces gear up for the military operation. A statement from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHR) on Saturday predicted that displacement will continue.
"Major military operations have ended in Mosul, but operations are expected to begin in Hawija and pockets of western Anbar over the coming months," it stated. "This will likely lead to new waves of displacement and risks for civilians caught up in the fighting."
As the battle approaches, 10,000 families are expected to flee the contested town, Kurdish officials estimated. Another 30,000 families are already sheltering at seven camps around Kirkuk.
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, a move repeatedly criticized by the Kurdish leadership who believe delays only increase the threat to the city of Kirkuk. Over the summer months, ISIS has launched sporadic deadly attacks against the Peshmerga and civilians, mostly from their Hawija stronghold.
The US-led coalition to defeat ISIS 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.
With the liberation of Hawija, ISIS will be finally pushed out of all territory it once controlled in northern Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared Mosul liberated on July 10 after a nine-month-long battle. Nineveh province was then declared liberated on August 31 after an 11-day fight for the city of Tal Afar.