The Islamic State has begun exacerbating concerns about the availability of electricity in Iraq by targeting power plants and other key infrastructure for destruction. Baghdad announced on Sunday that unspecified “terrorist groups,” which observing media identify as the Islamic State, blew up a power plant in Kirkuk.
The Iraqi government took Kirkuk over from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq late last year after the Kurdish Peshmerga prevented the Islamic State from overrunning the ethnically diverse region in 2014. The KRG took over Kirkuk after Iraqi soldiers fled an Islamic State attack.
Kurdistan 24 reported on Sunday that Iraq’s Ministry of Energy confirmed the eighth attack of its kind on Iraqi infrastructure occurred that day in southwest Kirkuk. The terrorist groups in question “detonated a power station” in that region and also “blew up three transmission lines in the Brima, al-Multaqa, and al-Khzaifi areas of Kirkuk’s Hawija district, cutting electricity supply to the region.” Kurdistan 24 asserts that the attackers were Islamic State terrorists.
In another incident in Baghdad, however, the outlet did not specify who cut a major power line servicing the al-Rasafa neighborhood of the capital. The Islamic State has generally not been especially active near Baghdad, a typically Shiite Arab stronghold.
Another Kurdish outlet, Bas News, citing the local Al Sumaria news station, also reported that the Islamic State was responsible for blowing up the power plant. The outlet added that its destruction means the surrounding area has lost 16 MW of electricity and most towns and villages will not have electricity in the near future.
Iraq has been struggling to keep electric infrastructure running for the past month, triggering protests across the country.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that he was dissatisfied with his government’s leadership on this front and suspended Electricity Minister Qassim al-Fahdawi until further notice.
Baghdad has launched an investigation into why so much of the country no longer has electricity, which Kurdistan 24 notes was in part cut because the Ministry of Energy was not paying Iran, which supplies much of the nation’s electricity, its regular bills. The investigation is in part meant to discover what officials did with the money meant to keep the lights on.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s most prominent geopolitical rival, has seized the opportunity and reportedly offered to sell electric services to Iraq to help offset the services Baghdad has yet to pay Tehran for. According to the Kurdish outlet Rudaw, Riyadh has offered the services of a new solar power station at a reduced price to attract Iraq’s business away from Iran.
“Together with a raft of new business deals with Erbil [the KRG capital], Riyadh’s move looks like a bold effort to counter Tehran’s influence,” Rudaw suggests, noting that the Saudis have also held talks with Kurdish officials to expand their presence in the region. The Iraqi government has denied that any aspect of this deal has been agreed upon, potentially surprised that it went public before details were finalized. The KRG has also found an unlikely partner in Japan, which recently agreed to a ten-year, nearly $120 million contract to supply energy for the region.
While electricity shortages have affected all of Iraq, and parts of Iran, the Islamic State’s slow resurgence following Baghdad’s declaration of victory in December has primarily affected areas like Kirkuk. Kirkuk was formerly under Peshmerga control but is now governed by a combination of Iraqi forces and members of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU/PMF) militias, who are largely Shiite majority and have strong ties to Iran.
ISIS members remain a disorganized minority following their defeat in northern Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, but reports of attacks in Kirkuk have increased in the past month.
In mid-July, locals in Kirkuk villages complained that Islamic State terrorists were targeting the smaller communities on the outskirts of Kirkuk city. Diyala, Kirkuk, and Salahaddin provinces have all documented similar reports of deteriorating security conditions that allow for ISIS raids, often resulting in the death of local leaders and kidnappings. In the most recent documented incident, Islamic State terrorists attacked a Kurdish village near Khanaqin, northeastern Iraq, sending the population of 12 families fleeing.
“Ever since the Peshmerga forces left the area, five residents of our village have been killed,” Khasraw Ali, a resident of the village, told Rudaw. “We have no social issues with anyone. It is Daesh [ISIS] who is killing our families.”
The Iraqi government forced the Peshmerga out of Kirkuk after the KRG held a non-binding referendum on independence in September. Threatened with PMF attacks, supported by Iran, but abandoned by former allies in the White House, the Peshmerga withdrew, leaving Kirkuk vulnerable to attack.
Diyala, which has grown to produce small pockets of ISIS resistance, also experienced clashes between Baghdad and jihadists on Sunday. Iraqi military officials told Bas News that Iraqi soldiers killed 17 ISIS terrorists on Sunday in an attack on a known hideout for jihadis in the region.