Terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State have resurfaced in the Kirkuk region of Iraq, reportedly attacking two villages north of Kirkuk city mere hours after the Iraqi military and its Iran-backed militia allies began an invasion against the Kurdish government controlling the city.
The attacks in the Kirkuk region provide the Islamic State a much-needed optimistic headline following their loss of Raqqa, Syria—the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS “caliphate.” The attacks also recall the group’s first major loss in Kirkuk at the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga in 2014, following the Iraqi military’s abandonment of the city.
Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported on Tuesday morning that the villages of Makha and Twelha, in the Dibis province, had fallen under Islamic State attack. “It is not clear whether Iraqi or Kurdish forces were in control of the two villages when the attack took place,” Rudaw noted.
Al Jazeera confirms that the Islamic State terrorists “seized control” of the villages in question, citing security sources in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The sources noted that the Islamic State appeared to act as soon as the Peshmerga began retreating from the region. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) withdrew from parts of Kirkuk to prevent bloodshed over the weekend and have since reinforced closer to Erbil, largely allowing the Iraqi government to retake parts of Kirkuk, including the eponymous city.
As news of ISIS’s resurgence in areas where the Kurdish Peshmerga had kept them from overrunning villages emerged in Iraq, Kurds in Syria celebrated the fall of the jihadist organization in Raqqa, which terror chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared the capital of the ISIS “caliphate.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic coalition largely consisting of members of the Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), announced on Tuesday that the Islamic State had fled the city. “Everything is finished in Raqqa, our forces have taken full control of Raqqa,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello confirmed to the Agence France-Presse (AFP). “The military operations in Raqqa have finished, but there are clearing operations now underway to uncover any sleeper cells there might be and remove mines.”
The Islamic State typically leaves mines, explosives, and an assortment of booby traps in the buildings of cities and towns it has captured once its terrorists are defeated to maximize death and injury both to victorious militias and civilians returning home.
Back in Iraq, the KRG is struggling to maintain control of disputed territory it controlled due to its campaign against the Islamic State. Kirkuk is among these. In 2014, the Islamic State invaded the city, seeking to control its large oil assets. The Iraqi military fled. At one point that year, the Washington Post reported that over 90,000 Iraqi soldiers had deserted when faced with the possibility of fighting ISIS.
Kirkuk never fell to the Islamic State because of the Peshmerga, who stepped in when the Iraqi army fled. The Kurds also prevented an ISIS invasion of Kirkuk city a year ago, killing dozens of jihadist attackers. While Kirkuk is often not considered part of traditionally Kurdish territory, it lies on the border with what was considered Kurdistan prior to 2014. The BBC noted at the time that it also boasted a significant Kurdish population before attempts by Saddam Hussein to ethnically cleanse the area.
The U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS has not acted to protect Kurdish allies, instead publishing a statement on Monday expressing “concern” regarding the Iraqi invasion of Kurdish territory and calling attacks on the Peshmerga a “misunderstanding.”
The Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is closely tied to Iran, announced the invasion following the September 25 referendum held by Erbil on Kurdish independence. While KRG officials emphasized that the vote was non-binding and no unilateral moves to secede would occur, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi troops and the Shiite, Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to attack Kirkuk this week.