Ridding Hawija of ISIS is next
ERBIL - Iraq’s military is gearing up to drive Islamic State (ISIS) militants from the strategic town of Hawija, near the country’s northern oilfields. The move is part of a drive towards Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Hawija, which fell under ISIS control in June 2014, is 55km south-west of the lucrative Kirkuk oilfield in Iraq’s northern Kurdish regions.
An Iraqi Army colonel said the battle, which had been planned for earlier in August, was postponed to complete preparations for the influx of about 450,000 refugees from the area.
“The battle was postponed, although an army siege of the town has weakened ISIS’s control of it,” the colonel said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He explained that recapturing Hawija was significant “to protect Kirkuk and Saladin provinces”.
“It will be a step towards liberating the town of Sharqat,” the military official said. He emphasised that battles for Hawija and Sharqat would start soon.
Drawing parallels with Syria, he said Hawija was “as important in Iraq as Raqqa province to Syria”. Raqqa, in northern Syria, is considered ISIS’s de facto capital.
He said Hawija was near the centre of jihadists’ attacks against Kurdish peshmerga forces in Makhmur to the east and as a base for attacks on Kirkuk, Hamrin mountains and Saladin province.
ISIS attacked a liquefied gas operation on July 31st in the Bajwan area, 20km west of Kirkuk, killing an engineer and three other workers. One of the attackers was a suicide bomber, police said.
Since June 2014, when ISIS took control of the areas west and south of Kirkuk, there have been many attacks that targeted Kirkuk and its oil and gas fields and factories.
“Yet, the last attack made officials and people say it is enough and Hawija should be liberated,” said political analyst Hamid Hamza. “For the first time, the Arab tribes of Hawija, the Kurdish, Turkmen and the Popular Mobilisation Forces began demanding the liberation of Hawija and the area around it.
“[The Arab tribesmen] wanted to save the people of Hawija, who literally starved because of the siege imposed around the town, while ISIS slapped another siege from inside to weaken the people.”
Abu Omer, who has lived in Erbil since June 2014, said: “ISIS’s foreign leaders and fighters left Hawija recently with their families, headed for Mosul but they wanted the locals who paid allegiance to ISIS to stay behind.”
The man, who declined to give his full name to protect relatives in Hawija, said the local militants are known to Hawija’s tribes. “These militants committed atrocities against the people, including bloody crimes even against their relatives,” he said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said ISIS captured 3,000 civilians trying to leave Hawija. Days later, Hawija witnesses said 12 people were executed.
Samira, a Hawija resident, said her husband was killed because he was a police officer. She said she left Hawija and was living with her brother.
“When the Qayyarah battle resumed two weeks ago, ISIS jammed satellite TV reception in the area. It captured families trying to flee Hawija, then they began firing at them,” she said.
Samira, with her six children, walked for 17 hours with a trafficker, who asked her for $500 for each adult and $200 for children to guide them to the town of al Alam, about 35km south of Hawija “through a road he himself had not taken previously,” she said.
Samira said a family of two parents and four children died from thirst as they fled Hawija through the Hamrin mountains, she said.
In July, Iraqi Air Force planes dropped leaflets over Hawija urging civilians to leave the town, said Mohammed Rishawy, a sheikh from Hawija.
“The leaflets were signed by Iraqi army forces, the counterterrorism unit and the peshmerga, the Popular Mobilisation Forces and tribal fighters to facilitate the exit of refugees,” Rishawy said.
According to a Hawija witness, ISIS executed five civilians in the town marketplace after accusing them of collaborating with the Iraqi forces. ISIS warned the remaining civilians against leaving.
“ISIS organised a brief show in central Hawija, executing five residents allegedly for collaborating with the security forces,” the Iraqi News reported, adding that “ISIS organised the show to boost the morale of their fighters after their defeat in Saladin and Makhmur”.