Dozens of Terrorists at Large in Kirkuk

Friday's spectacular ISIS attack intended to draw forces from Mosul

Iraqi security forces inspect damaged buildings after clashes with ISIS terrorists in Kirkuk / AP

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Dozens of terrorists who struck Iraq’s oil capital of Kirkuk on Friday are still roaming the city, while Turkmen Shia residents are reeling from an unexplained bombing of a mosque south of the city.

"There are possibly 37 terrorists still in the city," texted Col. Tariq Ahmed Jaff, commander of the Peshmerga's 9th Brigade Combat Team, from Dakuk south of Kirkuk. Jaff cited security officials in Kirkuk, which has seen relatively few terrorist attacks during the war with the Islamic State.

But today, citizens of this large, ancient, and multi-ethnic city are bracing for more shocks after a stunning surprise attack early Friday morning. The terrorists stormed a power plant under construction north of the city, killing 10, and occupied hotels and schools in the south-central part of the city for hours. Most of the 100 fighters have been killed or captured, but an unknown number remain at large.

The terrorists exploited a security breach between the towns of Bashir and Dakuk on the city's southern border, Rudaw reported. The group drove into the city in five trucks around midnight on Friday and headed to pre-selected targets. Many were dressed in the uniforms of local police, according to eyewitness reports.

"The terrorists did not cross over the city limits from displaced person camps outside the city, but some of the internally displace[d] persons helped them," Jaff wrote in a text.

The mastermind of the attack and seven other terrorists were captured Sunday. Their mission appears to have been to embed dozens of fighters inside the city to distract the Peshmerga away from the Mosul front, where combined forces have made quick territorial gains against ISIS.

Human Rights Watch has called for a formal investigation of an unexplained missile strike on a Shia mosque in Dakuk on the same day as the assault in Kirkuk. The missile killed 13 Turkmen Shia women and two children and injured 53 others worshiping during a religious holiday. Dakuk has become a disputed territory since its liberation from ISIS in 2014. It has a mixed population of Shia Turkmen, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. 

Turkmen victims and local residents say the missile came from a coalition air strike, but the coalition has denied carrying out any strikes in the area. The missile could have been launched by ISIS fighters located seven miles away. 

"Nobody claims responsibility, and those on the ground have no way to identify the attackers," according to Saad Al-Khalis, a Daesh Daily reporter in Baghdad.  "The commander of the Turkmen Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a Turkmen Shia militia, in Dakuk, Abu Mustafa Al-Imami, said that he does not know if it was an Iraqi or Coalition strike," Al-Khalis wrote today.

Human Rights Watch, which has interviewed victims, reported Monday that the coalition and Iraqi Air Force are the only parties that fly in the area. Some observers speculate that the aircraft could have been Turkish Air Force, according to Al-Khalis.  

"It is possible technically that the missile was launched from the ground, but the village residents said that they heard the sound of aircraft before the explosion. We will have to hear from technician inspecting the remains of the shells to tell what happened," he wrote.

The loss of innocent life sparked protests from Turkmen Shia leaders, who say they have been squeezed for two years by turf wars between the Kurdish Peshmerga, ISIS terrorists, and the Iraqi Army.  There are up to 3 million Turkmen in Iraq, according to Ali Akram Al-Bayati, head of the Baghdad-based Turkmen Rescue Foundation. They are sometimes referred to as Iraq's unknown minority.

"The attacks [in Kirkuk by ISIS] were on Turkmen areas exclusively, including Tes'in,  Baghdad Road, Domiz, Al Quds, Al Wasti and Wahid Huzairan and other areas) and targeted important commercial centers for Turkmen businessmen," Al-Bayati wrote in a Monday statement in which he accused security forces of neglecting Turkmen neighborhoods.

"So there is no option for the [Turkmen] people of Kirkuk other than to protect and defend their city by themselves and with coordination with Popular Mobilization Forces. The political, religious, social and youth leaders in Kirkuk are requested to encourage the people to hold and get weapons and trainings and stay ready for a deterioration of the security status," Al-Bayati wrote.

When the guns go silent, the Iraqi government will face the task of reconciling the feuding factions of Kurds, Turkmen Shia, Sunni Arabs, and religious minorities such as Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, and Shabbaks. By some accounts, it will be a task of biblical proportions.

Saad S. Al-Khalis in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Douglas Burton

Douglas Burton   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Douglas Burton is a former U.S. State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq and writes news and commentary from Washington, D.C.