Downtown Kirkuk, one of the areas ISIS militants attacked last October when they carried out coordinated multiple attacks in the cxity, kiling more than 100 people. The attacks were directed from Hawija, south of Kirkuk. Photo:Rudaw
KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region — Some 1,200 Sunni tribal fighters have been trained by the Iraqi government to take part in the long-anticipated offensive to recapture the ISIS stronghold of Hawija, about 55 km south of Kirkuk.
The new force, which is currently under the command of the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, have been formed with the permission of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a Sunni leader told Rudaw.
“Certainly these [fighters] are all from Kirkuk, are citizens of Kirkuk, and they come from the tribes of Kirkuk,” said Ismail Hadidi, deputy head of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, a Sunni Arab coalition with representation in the provincial council.
“They [the fighters] have knowledge of the area, and now they would like to take part in the liberation alongside the [Iraqi] army and the Peshmerga,” he continued.
He however expressed his willingness to integrate the new Sunni force under the command of the regular army, a sign that they may not get along well with the Shiite paramilitaries.
There have been plans in the making that calls for a joint offensive involving the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi army and the federal police, and the mainly-Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi, all of whom reiterate that the final say lies with PM Abadi.
Hawija, from where the deadly October attacks were directed against Kirkuk in which more than one-hundred people were killed, has been under ISIS control for more than two years.
Kirkuk city and security officials have long complained that the Hawija operation have been delayed with no real justification; thereby underestimating the security of the city.
A senior Peshmerga commander commenting on the formation of the new force said that the Kurdish Peshmerga is there to stay in the city, hoping that there will be no clashes between them and any other force, adding that the people of the city appreciate the fact that the Kurdish soldiers protected the province from ISIS since 2014 when the Iraqi army retreated in the face of the extremist group.
“We want to reassure people that we will stay on in Kirkuk beyond any doubt,” Hiwa Ahmad, deputy commander of the 4th front of the Kirkuk Peshmerga told Rudaw.
“We hope that we will not face unwanted situation with any force that is getting close to Kirkuk lines,” he said in reference to the often uneasy relation between the Kurdish soldiers and the paramilitaries.
The UN reported last month that an estimated 70,000 were still living under ISIS rule in the Hawija district, where they are suffering shortages of water, food, and health care.
From November last year to February, about 30,000 people were displaced from Hawija, described as “huge number” by Iraq’s Migration and Displaced Minister Darbaz Mohammed.
Officials from Baghdad and Kirkuk jointly announced the establishment of a 2,500-tent camp in the province of Kirkuk with a commitment of providing 2,500 more tents in the future in anticipation of receiving a myriad of displaced Iraqis expected to flee from Hawija as the prospect for a near offensive is becoming more likely.