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Why the Islamic State tried an audacious attack on Kirkuk

November 10, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
In October, the Islamic State launched an offensive on the city of Kirkuk, Iraq. The attack was ultimately suppressed by Kurdish military forces, but it also diverted other anti-ISIS efforts and possibly escalated ethnic tensions in the culturally diverse city. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports from Kirkuk.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the challenges overseas that the new administration will inherit is the war in Iraq.

It’s been almost a month since the operation to retake the ISIS-held city of Mosul began. Early on, the extremists sought to divert Kurdish forces from the fight by attacking Kirkuk, the oil capital of Northern Iraq that’s been held by the Kurds for more than two years.

Special correspondent Christopher Livesay recently visited the multi-ethnic city to see how it withstood the attack.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Kirkuk is over 100 miles southeast of the ISIS-held city of Mosul.

But, on October 21, no one could tell the difference. It was just four days into the Iraqi-led offensive to recapture Mosul, but, as Kirkuk residents slept, a unit of ISIS fighters launched an attack on multiple locations throughout the city. The assault would last more than two days.

When it was over, 116 people were dead, including police, military, and civilians, and more than 80 of the ISIS fighters were killed. Among the dead and injured, guests at the neighboring Dar al Salam and Snobar hotels in the city center.

Mustafa Mohammed owns both.

This is the aftermath of an RPG right here?

MUSTAFA MOHAMMED, Hotel Owner: That’s right. Yes. And they went on the second floor and third floor and the fourth floor.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: You can still see the bullet holes that riddle the walls. Out this window here, you can see what looks like a bulletproof vest spread open. You have got a pot full of food, bottles of waters, ammunition belts and clothing strewn about.

Once inside the hotel, the militants had a commanding view of government areas. The hotel is just across the street from the compound of Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.

NAJMALDIN KARIM, Governor, Kirkuk Province: We watched them on our monitor and the cameras from outside. We could see them. And when they tried to come out, a couple of them came to detonate their belt, and they were killed by our police.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: That sounds terrifying, to be watching something like that when you’re inside the target they’re trying to penetrate.

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, you don’t think about fear at that time. You think about how to kill them.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The attack was indeed suppressed. But it still achieved much in the Islamic State’s broader military strategy, as it undergoes a punishing offensive in and around Mosul.

When ISIS attacked Kirkuk, they managed to divert thousands of anti-ISIS fighters away from Mosul. The attack was so audacious, it recalled the ISIS takeover of Mosul two years ago, thanks in large part to the support of the locals. It appears ISIS hoped for a similar welcome in Kirkuk. But that’s not what happened.

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Their aim was to come and control this building, to be in it, and declare they that have controlled Kirkuk and Kirkuk was now part of the Islamic State.

There’s something about Kirkuk that’s so different from everywhere else. In other places, when these things happen, people hide or run away. They just evacuate. The people of Kirkuk do the contrary. They put their belts on, they put their guns on, and their ammunitions, and they will come in.

Actually, we lost 34 people who had just come on their own as volunteers. And they were just killed, because they didn’t know where the terrorists were, and they were coming on the streets.

So, the people of Kirkuk are very, very resilient, and I think was in — ISIS was in for a surprise.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But the attack may have aggravated ethnic tensions. Amnesty International and the United Nations have accused Kurdish authorities of driving hundreds of Arab families out of the city in an act of retaliation.

NAJMALDIN KARIM: First of all, that’s not true. Several hundred families is nothing compared to 115,000 and families who are all Sunni Arabs in this city. If there was such a policy, none of these would have been allowed to come in.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Kirkuk is a melting pot of virtually every ethnic group in Iraq, Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs. They have co-existed for centuries, but tensions are not uncommon, and sometimes violent.

ISIS, which is made up of Sunnis, has exploited those tensions, and depended on the support of sympathetic Sunni Arabs across Iraq and Syria. But, in Kirkuk, that alliance appears weak.

During our interview with the governor, a Sunni Arab named Mohammed Jawad Ali Jasim arrived to tell us his story.

NAJMALDIN KARIM: He says he killed two ISIS.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: He says ISIS militants stormed into his home seeking refuge. Instead, Jasim says he shot two of them dead with his own AK-47. Out of desperation, the third attacker detonated a suicide bomb, wounding him.

Sheik Anwar Al-Asi is the emir of the Al-Ubaid Tribes, a prominent Sunni in both Kirkuk, as well as ISIS-held territory. He says that many Sunnis, including members of his tribes, supported ISIS at the beginning.

SHEIKH ANWAR AL-ASI, Emir, Al-Obaid tribe (through translator): There is some. I can’t deny that. There is a section that helps ISIS.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Those views have made him a target. Two years ago, ISIS blew up his home near Kirkuk when he refused to join their alliance.

Of course, its riches aren’t limited to cultural diversity. Kirkuk is a trove of natural resources. This oil field and others like it make Kirkuk the largest producer oil producer in all of Northern Iraq.

And that makes Kirkuk an even more attractive prize to Islamic State, which fueled its unprecedented expansion across Iraq and Syria in large part by selling crude on the black market. These fields are just a short distance from Hawija, a vast area held by ISIS on the border of Kirkuk.

Amir Taleb Faruq commands the Hawija front line for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish military force that’s been the most successful bulwark against ISIS since its invasion.

AMIR TALEB FARUQ, Commander, Peshmerga (through translator): ISIS attacked over in this area six days ago. But, just as in the past, we subdued them, and they didn’t break through.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Moments later, an explosion in ISIS territory. Smoke billows from a white building. Coalition forces launched an airstrike on the same area the night before. Coalition airstrikes have been instrumental in repelling ISIS from Kirkuk.

Major General Westa Rasul shows us some armored ISIS vehicles they captured after a battle. They’re known as death cars.

MAJ. GEN. WESTA RASUL, Peshmerga (through translator): Last year, ISIS sent three of these cars towards Kirkuk. Two of them were halted. One of them made it three kilometers past the Peshmerga front line, because nothing can stop these things.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: These ISIS death traps are virtually indestructible. RPGs can’t take them out. Machine gun fire can’t take them out. But airstrikes can. And one did in this case. This is the exit wound of an airplane that fired down a missile on this thing and took it out.

The Peshmerga and the Iraqi army now have Hawija surrounded, says the general. But the border is vast and, in some places, porous, despite a sprawling wall the Peshmerga have built between Kirkuk and the Islamic State. It’s believed that the fighters who launched the attack on Kirkuk came from this area, and locals fear they could come again.

MUSTAFA MOHAMMED: You get used to it.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So, it might happen again. It’s just that you’re not worried.

MUSTAFA MOHAMMED: It might be. It might be. I don’t know.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: But that isn’t stopping him from rebuilding his hotels. Despite the risks from ISIS and lingering sectarian divisions in Kirkuk, he says the city will endure. Kirkuk will outlive ISIS, he says.

But the future of Iraq is less certain.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Christopher Livesay in Kirkuk.

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