Members of the Iraqi forces make their way to the front line on September 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye/alternative crop
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has announced the launch of the Hawija offensive Thursday morning, promising to clean every bit of Iraqi land of the ISIS militants.
He said that the operation began at dawn Thursday.
Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, told Rudaw on Thursday that they do not take part in the operation. He said that they will only keep their defense lines strong, and will not allow the ISIS militants to infiltrate Peshmerga lines.
He explained they will not allow any units of the Iraqi forces to cross the front lines of Peshmerga-controlled areas.
Yawar added the operation first began in Sharqat, west of ISIS-held Hawija. He said Hawija will be the last place the Iraqi forces will control.
Col. Dillon said at a press conference after the launch of the operation that they stand “shoulder to shoulder with our Iraqi brothers” in their fight to clear every last bit of Iraq’s lands from ISIS.
He said they support Iraqi PM Abadi, and welcome simultaneous operations in both Hawija and in Anbar, a province on Iraq’s western border.
Yahya Rasul, spokesperson for Iraqi Central Command, also said the “cooperation" between the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces continues on a larger scale, but that at the current first stage of the Hawija offensive it is the Iraqi units, including the Hashd that are taking part.
The Coalition spokesperson said that they are not the ones who decide who will take part in the war against ISIS, and that it is the Iraqi government that makes such decisions.
He said that like Tal Afar, it is expected that the Peshmerga forces will hold their lines against the ISIS militants since they are in close proximity to the ISIS-held areas, something also confirmed by Yawar, the Peshmerga official.
Asked about a Wednesday statement from the US State Department that said the Kurdish independence referendum “has negatively affected” the war on ISIS, Col. Dillon said that is an assessment from the State Department. He added that from the defense point of view, the focus has to be on defeating ISIS.
He explained that the discussion regarding the vote “have taken efforts and focus to — not just to fighting ISIS, but on this referendum as well.”
The Kurdish Peshmerga have said time and again the vote does not affect their cooperation with the US-led Global Coalition.
The Hashd al-Shaabi claimed that they liberated at least seven villages north of the eastern half of Sharqat as of midday on Monday.
Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Hashd deputy head, said that the first stage focuses mainly on Sharqat and its surrounding areas, while the second stage will be about attacking Hawija.
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 Iraqi army, the Federal Police, the Rapid Response, and mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi are taking part.
US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesperson for the coalition, tweeted earlier in the day that that the ISIS militants are facing the “mighty ISF [Iraqi Security Forces].”
The operation began a day after PM Abadi, also the commander in-chief of the armed forces, visited the Iraqi forces in Makhmour, a strategic anti-ISIS front south of Erbil.
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 had 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) predicted that displacement will continue.
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 coalition had estimated 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.
Background analysis: New conflict over Kirkuk could follow ISIS removal from Hawija