Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers in Kirkuk Province. AP file photo.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—A date to launch an offensive against the Islamic State (ISIS) in its stronghold of Hawija has been set, said a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council, and the local population have been advised to rise up against the radical group as soon as the army has pulled the trigger.
“All the preparation been done and people of Hawija have been told to rise up at the same time as the operation starts,” provincial council member Islamil Hadidi told Rudaw.
The town of Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk is considered one of ISIS’s main strongholds in Iraq and military and security officials in Kirkuk have longed argued that the extremist group must be defeated there before the final battle for Mosul.
“We have no red-line as to which forces will take part in the operation,” said Muhammed Khidhr, member of the Arab bloc in the council, stressing however that “Only police and Sunni militias should be in charge of the town’s security after the operation is done.”
Iraqi army commander Wasfi al-Asi, who is expected to lead the anticipated offensive for Hawija, had previously said several Iraqi forces will take part in the joint action, including Sunni and Shiite militias, the police, the army and the Kurdish Peshmerga.
There is however concern among the local population in Hawija about who will lead the battle into their town, fearing retribution attacks from Shiite militiamen.
”We can only trust Sunni forces and Peshmerga to be responsible for the town’s security," said a refugee who escaped Hawija recently.
Hawija and its vicinity are home to close to half a million people, mainly Sunni Arabs.
The Iraqi government’s crackdown on Sunni protesters in Hawija in April 2013 notably intensified political divisions and sectarian polarization in the entire country.
A number of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers taken captive in battle with ISIS are believed to have been held in Hawija.
A special operation by Kurdish and US commandos against an ISIS prison earlier this year managed to free some 70 prisoners, mostly local Arabs.
Now the Kurds are poised to join the operation when it comes.
"We have our own plans and priorities," Peshmerga commander Rasoul Omar told Rudaw.
"We will join the operations but in cooperation with the Iraqi and coalition forces," Omar said and noted that ISIS militants in Hawija pose a direct threat to the security of Kirkuk, located some 30 kilometres to the north.