Iraqi forces gear up to retake Hawija from ISIS
London- Iraqi forces are gearing up for an offensive to retake Hawija in Kirkuk province from the Islamic State (ISIS) as territories controlled by the militants continue to shrink, Iraq’s military said.
Iraq’s military press office, the War Media Cell, dubbed the operation “Hawija, we are coming” days after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi declared victory over ISIS in Tal Afar in Nineveh province.
Iraqi forces have retaken Tikrit, Sinjar, Ramadi, Falluja, Qayyarah, Mosul and Tal Afar from ISIS over the past two years. In addition to Hawija, ISIS remains in control of al-Qaim, Rawa and Aana in al-Anbar province.
Representatives from the predominately Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and the Kurdish peshmerga said their fighters would take part in the operation in Hawija, where an estimated 1,000 ISIS militants are present.
The US-led coalition carried out air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. A US Central Command statement said air strikes engaged two ISIS tactical units and destroyed five oil storage tanks, four ISIS-held buildings, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, an improvised explosive device facility, a vehicle and a fighting position.
Iraqi media said scores of ISIS militants in Hawija had surrendered. There are unconfirmed reports of fighting between ISIS militants and the town’s residents.
ISIS has reportedly lost many of its militants and is resorting to recruiting more female fighters.
“Despite Islamic State’s claims to the contrary, urging women to seek an active role in combat is most likely an attempt to reduce the impact of severe manpower shortages caused by the decimation of male fighters, and a recruitment crisis,” Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk, said in a release. “This rhetoric marks a stark contrast to previous propaganda that had highlighted women’s primary function as wives and mothers of mujahideen.”
Despite new attacks in Baghdad and Saladin province, there are signs ISIS has been less successful in posing a threat to the country in recent weeks.
Iraq and Jordan reopened their only border crossing, which had been closed for two years due to security fears. The move “means we have told the world we are greater… than any terrorist group,” Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji said during its opening ceremony on the Jordanian side of the border.
The civilian death toll from acts of terror across the country in August was 125, a report by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said.
“This makes the last month the least deadly month Iraq has experienced since 2012. This is a direct result of the recent military victories by the Iraqi armed forces against [ISIS] in their strongholds in northern Iraq,” read a report by Integrity UK, a London-based research centre that monitors the MENA region.
United States officials stressed that to fully defeat ISIS, the grievances of Sunni Arabs need to be addressed.
“I think part of the rise of ISIS was disenfranchised peoples, most of them Sunnis, who looked at Baghdad and they didn’t see their government representing them or their interests or their future,” US Army Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, outgoing commander of the anti-ISIS coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, said in a news briefing.
“I think that’s probably the most important thing that the government of Iraq has to do. It has to reach out, reconcile, bring all Iraqis together and be the government of all Iraqis.”
The country is facing rising tensions between the Shia-dominated central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over a referendum on the independence of the Kurdish-majority, semi-autonomous region scheduled for September 25 despite Baghdad’s objections.
Government supporters took to social media to claim that peshmerga fighters were taking bribes from ISIS militants to allow them to escape.
In an interview with Asharq Al- Awsat newspaper, KRG President Masoud Barzani accused former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of “committing a crime against the [Kurdistan] region that was worse than Saddam Hussein’s Anfal operation,” in which thousands of Kurds died.
In addition to regional and international objections, the timing of the Kurdistan referendum has been opposed by Kurds who say that the KRG is pushing its policies by force, allowing little room for dissent.
In Baghdad, there were sharp divisions within the Shia political class over a decision made by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement to allow approximately 300 ISIS militants to head towards Iraq as part of an exchange deal between the two warring sides.
The ISIS-Hezbollah deal was opposed by Abadi and the Sadrists, among others, because it meant that the militants would be fighting Iraqi forces. Pro-Tehran Iraqi politicians, such as Maliki, however, dismissed the protest, arguing that the released ISIS fighters won’t pose a serious threat to Iraq.