Regular Peshmerga forces and Kurdish volunteers heading to a frontline south of Kirkuk to defend the area against ISIS takeover, 2014. Photo by Farzin Hassan/Rudaw
With the Islamic State's (ISIS) removal from Mosul imminent the militant's only real base of operations will be the city of Hawija, west of Kirkuk. The militants have retained that enclave to date primarily because Baghdad and its American backer prioritized the Mosul operation. It's presently unclear which forces will remove them when the time comes.
“From what the Iraqi forces have said Hawija might be the last bit of Iraqi territory to be liberated,” Iraq analyst Joel Wing of Musings of Iraq, told Rudaw English. “After Mosul is finished the joint forces will go after Tal Afar then western Anbar, and then Hawija at the very end.”
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim has often questioned the wisdom of prioritizing Mosul's recapture before Hawija's – given the geographical location of the city and the fact ISIS continues to threaten Kirkuk from there.
Even though total defeat of ISIS in Mosul will certainly be a major blow to them, since it's from that metropolis Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the caliphate in June 2014, the group will not face total defeat in Iraq until they are removed from Hawija.
Late last month Karim predicted that after Mosul Hawija will become the group’s de-facto headquarters in Iraq.
“Hawija has become a center for the Islamic State far before Governor Karim's statement,” Wing added. “Officials in Diyala and Salahaddin, for example, have been complaining for months that ISIS elements have been infiltrating into their provinces from Hawija. That's because Hawija connects with a string of rural areas in all three provinces, which the insurgents are exploiting.”
Brigadier General Sarhad Qadir, the chief of police of Kirkuk recently told Rudaw that ISIS are stepping up hit-and-run attacks on the Peshmerga positions from Hawija in an effort to reinforce morale in light of their impending loss of Mosul. He says the number of militants in Hawija has “doubled” from approximately 1,000.
“Tens of car bombs, thousands of militants, including foreigners, are present in Hawija and its outskirts,” Qadir explained.
Qadir believes that “needs [to be] an agreement between the Peshmerga, Iraqi army and coalition,” to remove the militants from the town.
Wing says that in light of Hawija being “the very last piece of Iraqi territory to be liberated and its location in Kirkuk” he would therefore “not be surprised if the army, police, Hashd al-Shaabi and Peshmerga are all involved” in any upcoming operation against ISIS there.
“They will all want to take part in this last victory in the war,” he concluded.
The Peshmerga in Kirkuk are wary of the Shiite-majority Hashd paramilitaries, many of whom are backed by Iran and oppose Kurdish control over Kirkuk and the prospect of Kurdish independence. Back in February Peshmerga commander Colonel Sirwan Muhammad told Rudaw that Hashd build-ups south of Kirkuk are possibly being done in preparation to fight “the Peshmerga [in Kirkuk] when ISIS is gone.”
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst at the Henry Jackson Society, doesn't think it's “impossible you'll get some cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Hashd over Hawija.”
“But the Hashd are going to be very wary of inviting the Peshmerga into any more of Kirkuk Province given that they still remain opposed to the Peshmerga's presence in the provincial capital,” he added. “There's also the local problem. The Iranian proxy militias were essentially diverted out to Hawija and Tal Afar to keep them away from the Americans and to avoid them tainting the big symbolic battle in Mosul, and that worked. At least for now. But the reasons to keep Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-run units out of Mosul apply in Hawija.”
Orton also thinks the fact that the Hashd did not participate in the operation in Mosul city – where Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF, also known as the Golden Division) “have been chewed up pretty badly” in street-to-street battles against the entrenched militants – will make it more likely that Hashd will play a role in the Hawija battle since “they're militarily better positioned now.”
“It goes back to the rushing of the Mosul operation. It would have been much better, for Iraqi internal politics and simply militarily, to have done Hawija first, but the political timetable that directed things wasn't in Iraq,” he concluded.