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Isis's New Insurgency in Kirkuk and Hawija in Iraq
By Seth J. Frantzman

ISIS is carrying on a low-level insurgency in Iraq, one that is concentrated in Diyala, Salahuddin and Kirkuk provinces.

Dozens of civilians and members of the Iraqi Security Forces have been killed along with a similar number of ISIS fighters, according to numerous reports. The US-led coalition is still carrying out air strikes against ISIS targets, even though the country was supposed to have transitioned to stabilization in the run-up to elections in May.

"25 killed in terrorist attacks in Kirkuk and Ninawa provinces, Iraq, yesterday [March 11]," tweeted David Witty, a retired US Army special forces colonel who follows developments in Iraq. ISIS had lured civilians to a fake checkpoint on the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway in Diyala. They then gunned down up to 10 civilians in one incident, according to a local media source.

At another checkpoint they killed other men. According to Witty, another seven people were killed in the southern Nineveh province, not far from Mosul.

On March 10, several members of the mostly Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces were injured near Kirkuk by an improvised explosive device (IED).

It is difficult to quantify all the attacks because information is not always reported factually, but the picture being painted is that there is an area of the country slipping into lawlessness between the area controlled by Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, and Baghdad.

In October 2017, Iraq sent its army to retake Kirkuk from the Kurds. However, the multi-ethnic city has been a source of terrorism in the past. Under Kurdish control, from 2014 to 2017, it was largely peaceful. Now, different groups, including Shi'ite Turkmen, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, are exploiting government weakness and clashing with extremists who have set up cells in and around the city.

In the last years, hundreds of Kirkuk police have died fighting terrorism. Their pictures lined the walls of the security compound when I was there in 2015. Now, more losses have been added to the list.

The pro-ISIS Al-Naba publication even put out a brochure online recently, boasting that it had carried out 58 attacks in 80 days around Kirkuk and claiming the group had killed or wounded 153 Iraqi security forces. In its propaganda, ISIS refers to this as a "harvest."

But the Iraqi government also boasts that it is sending more forces to the area of Hawija and Kirkuk. The Federal Police who helped retake Mosul, the Shi'ite militias who are now officially part of the government and the black-clad Counter Terrorism Service have been pressed into action. They claim to be killing or capturing ISIS members almost every day. They are also finding ISIS tunnels and depots. Since ISIS massacred two dozen members of the Popular Mobilization Forces near Hawija on February 18th, these units want to take the battle to the extremists.

The US-led coalition is also helping.

On March 2, the coalition hit an ISIS supply route. On March 4, an ISIS tunnel and weapons cache were struck near Hawija. On March 7, another tunnel near Qayarrah was hit.

Overall, the number of air strikes -- several since the month began -- points to a very real security problem. ISIS has faded back into the landscape it came from. But its tenacity and the fact that it is inflicting casualties and tying up Iraq's best units show that there still is a problem.

Iraq needs to get a handle on the bubbling insurgency, especially as the US troops are dwindling and especially amid rumors that the country is no longer able to repair its tanks and hasn't replaced the casualties in its elite units.


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