For second day, Iraq forces battle with ISIS in Kirkuk
KIRKUK (Iraq) - Security forces battled for a second day Saturday with Islamic State group gunmen who infiltrated Kirkuk in a brazen raid that rattled Iraq as it ramped up an offensive to retake Mosul.
A toxic cloud released by a fire ISIS militants set off at a sulphur plant south of Mosul earlier this week killed at least two civilians and forced some US service members to wear masks.
A day after the shock attack on the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, jihadist snipers and suspected suicide bombers were still at large, prompting Baghdad to send reinforcements.
Special counter-terrorism and intelligence units were hunting down some of the dozens of ISIS fighters who stormed public buildings in the early hours of Friday.
"We have 46 dead and 133 wounded, most of them members of the security services, as result of the clashes with Daesh (ISIS)," an interior ministry brigadier general said.
The toll was confirmed by a source at the Kirkuk health directorate, which called for blood donations to assist with the emergency.
The Kirkuk police chief said 48 jihadist attackers had been killed so far and several others wounded, including a Libyan believed to be among the raid's leaders.
"The security forces control the situation now but there are still pockets of jihadists in some southern and eastern neighbourhoods," Brigadier General Khattab Omar Aref said.
The large-scale "inghimasi" attack, a term describing jihadist operations in which gunmen, often wearing suicide vests, intend to sow chaos and fight to the death rather than achieve any military goal, caught Kirkuk off guard.
The large city, which lies in an oil-producing region around 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad, woke up on Friday to find jihadists roaming the streets of several neighbourhoods.
They used mosque loudspeakers to broadcast praise of their self-proclaimed "caliphate", which has been shrinking steadily since last year and is looking closer than ever to collapse.
Abu Omar, a 40-year-old butcher, spent 24 hours locked up in his home with his wife, mother and three children.
"It felt as if this day lasted a year," he said. "We could hear shooting and explosions all the time but we didn't dare venture outside to see what was happening."
One attacker captured by the Kurdish security services on Friday claimed that the Kirkuk raid was planned by ISIS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a diversion from the offensive on Mosul.
"Today's attack was one of caliph Baghdadi's plans to demonstrate that the Islamic State is remaining and expanding and reduce the pressure on the Mosul front," he said, according to a reporter who saw his initial interrogation.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced late Friday that he was sending reinforcements to Kirkuk but there was no sign of any major impact on operations around Mosul.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter arrived in Iraq on Saturday to review the offensive, which his country and around 60 other nations support.
Mosul is the most populous city in the "caliphate" Baghdadi declared in June 2014 and the operation to recapture it is Iraq's largest in years.
With 3,000 to 4,500 men facing tens of thousands of Iraqi forces backed by massive US-led air power, the outcome of the battle is in little doubt.
But jihadists have been launching dozens of suicide car bombs against advancing forces, slowing their progress and inflicting casualties in the process.
On Saturday, Iraqi federal forces moved into Qaraqosh, which lies just east of Mosul and was Iraq's largest Christian town before its population fled the jihadists in 2014, the joint operations command said.
Kurdish forces were also leading a major push northeast of Mosul but complained that air support from the US-led coalition was insufficient and leaving them exposed.
In his meetings in Baghdad on Saturday, the US defence secretary was expected to attempt to convince the government to lift its opposition to the participation of Turkish forces, who have a base north of Mosul.
Launched on Monday, the offensive is still in its early stages and is likely to involve a siege before elite forces enter the city and engage in street fighting with die-hard jihadists.
A French government source said that entry into the city itself was still a month away.
A key concern is the presence in Mosul of up to 1.2 million civilians, who are trapped and unable to leave until forces move closer and safe corridors are opened.
According to residents, living conditions are deteriorating by the day, with some food supplies running low and ISIS paranoia of informants higher than ever.
Earlier this week, IS fighters set fire to part of a sulphur plant south of Mosul.
The toxic cloud it released killed two civilians in the area, a senior interior ministry officer told AFP in Qayyarah, the mains staging base south of Mosul.
"Of course, this is affecting our planned progress," he said.
Some US personnel at a nearby base wore protective masks Saturday after changing winds blew the cloud towards Qayyarah.
Iraqi efforts to extinguish the fire at the Mishraq plant were expected to last another two to three days, US and Iraqi sources said.
An Iraqi cameraman was killed by an ISIS sniper south of Mosul Saturday, a day after another TV journalist died of a sniper bullet to the chest during the Kirkuk clashes.