Did the coalition in Iraq underestimate the strength of ISIS in the Mosul region? The terrorist army, thought to have fallen back to the city under siege at the moment, launched a new offensive today against Kirkuk, which the Kurds had secured two years ago. The attack, if maintained, threatens oil assets and complicates the push into Mosul. France 24 reports on the “surprise attack”:
The Washington Post’s team also reported on the power-plant attack, as well as claims by the Iraqi military that the situation has been contained:
The Iraqi military said the situation was now “under control” and that three police stations and a political party headquarters had been attacked inside the city. It is unclear how many were killed in Kirkuk, but at least 13 died in the attack on the power plant in the nearby village of Dibbis.
Lt. Col. Abdullah Majid from the Kurdish security forces known as Asayish said the attack started at 3 a.m. and now the remaining militants in Kirkuk were surrounded in a hotel in the city center. …
Army commanders and officials speculate that the attack is an attempt to relieve pressure on Mosul’s defenders as Iraqi forces reach the outskirts of the city.
“It’s a desperate attempt to move the front to Kirkuk and give their people who are besieged in Mosul a chance to escape,” said local lawmaker Ammar Kahiya. “The militants attacked the provincial council building but did not manage to control it. They managed to enter the police station but had lost it by midmorning.”
The New York Times report suggests that the effort was on the smaller-scale side for a military operation, but perhaps all ISIS could afford to send. The diversion worked, at least temporarily:
Dozens of uniformed Islamic State fighters in vehicles assaulted Kirkuk, setting off gun battles for hours in the heart of the city, according to local officials and to the militant group itself. Imams shut down all mosques in the city, canceling Friday Prayer.
The battle scenes and the sound of automatic gunfire inside the city, broadcast live on local television, were reminiscent of the Islamic State’s brazen march across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. That offensive also involved multiple suicide attacks on police positions inside the city, and gunmen later took up positions in a mosque and a school, and on top of other buildings.
The attack on Kirkuk — a vital city to Iraq’s Kurds that has been under their control for more than two years — diverted attention, at least for a day, from the four-day offensive on Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been under the control of the Islamic State for more than two years.
ABC News offers some raw video of the “daring pre-dawn attack”:
If “dozens” were all ISIS could afford to send for this diversion, then it won’t keep Iraqi forces diverted for long. It will force the Kurds to bolster defenses along an already-stretched line, and it’s obviously a ploy to put a dent in the morale of the highly motivated Peshmerga advancing on Mosul. The value of the surprise has been lost, however, and the fact that forces in place handled the diversion will probably mean that morale will remain high with the Kurds.
As far as the suggestion that the diversion is to allow ISIS to retreat, that seems an unlikely motive. ISIS had plenty of time to pull out of Mosul if that’s what they intended, and still have egress options now — although they look pretty dismal, thanks to US air power, and the Kirkuk counterattack wouldn’t have an impact on that. The intent is probably to split the coalition and force the Kurds to redeploy offensive units around Mosul to defense, leaving ISIS to fight the main Iraqi army, at which they had success until the last several months. Unless they have more in the tank than “dozens” of fighters to hit the Kurdish rear, it’s a desperate act by a doomed foe.