“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance,” President Barack Obama boasted during his State of the Union address last week. “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
Few were perhaps more surprised by this claim than those fighting the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq and Syria. For an insurgency that is supposedly halted in its tracks, they’re sure not acting like it.
On Friday, ISIS forces reportedly executed a series of attacks across the whole of Iraq targeting Kurdish outposts. In the cities of Baghdad, Samarra, Jalawla, Ramadi and even the Kurdish stronghold of Kirkuk, a spate of bombings claimed 27 lives.
But the destabilizing bombings were only one part of the multipronged assault on Kurdish interests across Iraq. In a brazen assault on the heart of Iraq’s Kurdish ethnic region, ISIS executed a daring pre-dawn assault that probed the city’s security and claimed the life of a Kurdish commander.
“Early Friday, under the cover of dark and a particularly foggy night, Islamic State launched the Kirkuk attack from three areas south and west of the city, local officials said,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Airstrikes by the international coalition to fight Islamic State militants began to hit their vehicles in the area shortly after, the officials said.”
As fighting raged outside the city, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, tried to break into the Kirkuk Palace Hotel after detonating a car bomb in front of the hotel, a rare incursion into the city center, officials said.
Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim said Kurdish forces and local police halted the hotel break-in, killing three militants. The Kurdish forces, known as Peshmerga, “foiled today a break-in operation by ISIS toward oil and gas installations from three directions that aimed at reaching the center of Kirkuk,” Mr. Karim said.
After hours of fighting, Peshmerga officials also said they pushed the militants back from the areas where they had advanced southwest of Kirkuk, focusing particularly on cutting their access to roads leading to oil infrastructure.
“Kurdish military sources said the peshmerga had repelled dawn attacks by Islamic State at different points along a more than 1,000 km frontline, including Khazer, west of Arbil, and Makhmur, further south,” A Reuters dispatch read.
“Maybe they are afraid the fight for Mosul has started so they are trying to show they can operate close to Arbil or Kirkuk,” Roj Nuri Shaways, Iraq’s deputy prime minister and a peshmerga commander, told Reuters.
Senior Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami said on Twitter 45 militants and seven Kurdish “martyrs” were killed around Kirkuk. Medical sources said senior commander Brigadier Sherko Fatih was among the dead.
Iraqi officials have reportedly characterized ISIS’s assault on Kurdish positions as the group “lashing out” in order to save face following months of attacks from anti-ISIS coalition forces as well as Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga. They have characterized a number of ISIS offensives since August in a similar fashion, however, and the ability to execute attacks in the center of Kurdistan suggests that the group may not have been as de-fanged as the White House would like to suggest.