The Campaign for Mosul: ISIS Counterattacks in Kirkuk, October 21, 2016
ISIS attacks Kirkuk in Zone Defense to Divert Attention from Mosul
ISIS launched a major counter-attack in Kirkuk Province in response to advances by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces towards Mosul. On the morning of October 21, ISIS attackers struck central and southern Kirkuk City and an under-construction power station in Dibis District, northwest of Kirkuk. The three attackers in Dibis stormed the power station and killed or executed 16 workers, including four Iranians, before Kurdish security forces arrived and clashed with the attackers. One attacker was killed while the other two detonated Suicide Vests (SVESTs), wounding several Kurdish security forces. Another report claimed that 12 people were killed and 34 were wounded in the Dibis attack.
As many as 40 ISIS attackers supported by sleeper cells targeted multiple government facilities and landmarks in central and southern Kirkuk City, marking the first time that ISIS launched a major attack in the city since January 2015. These targets included:
1. Police stations in Dumiz and al-Adala, and possibly in Wahid Haziran and Tisaeen areas, all demographically-mixed with significant Arab populations in southern Kirkuk City. The attackers detonated at least one SVEST.
2. The Kirkuk police directorate, where ISIS attackers attempted to enter the building before being repelled. The attackers detonated either a SVEST or a Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) during the attack.
3. A Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party headquarters and the central government building.
4. A prison in Kirkuk, where some attackers may have attempted to break prisoners out.
Several ISIS attackers also stormed an “education building” in central Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish security forces to call in a Coalition airstrike to target the ISIS fighters holed up in the building. Unconfirmed reports indicate, however, the a Coalition airstrike may have targeted a Shi’a Husseiniyah (place of worship) in Daquq District, just south of Kirkuk, killing and wounding as many as 47 people and Peshmerga. ISW could not verify the report at the time of publication.
At the time of publication, Peshmerga forces sealed off all entrances to Kirkuk and were engaged in clashes with ISIS fighters barricaded in residential buildings in Dumiz and Wahid Haziran as well as with ISIS snipers using human shields at two hotels in Ras al-Jisr in central Kirkuk. The PUK’s “Dizha Tiror” counter-terrorism force, Turkmen and Badr Organization Popular Mobilization fighters, and other reinforcements arrived to the city to secure it from attack, though unconfirmed reports state that Badr Organization fighters were blocked from entering the city. ISIS claimed that it seized control of several villages, the Wasti neighborhood in Kirkuk, and Dibis District in the attack, though these claims are exaggerated. All signs indicate that Kurdish security forces are in the process of re-establishing full control over Kirkuk city and its environs, as Kurdish security forces have located and are currently targeting the remaining ISIS fighters who participated in the attacks.
The attack on Kirkuk may be part of a cluster of attacks away from Mosul that ISIS launched to divert forces from their main attack against ISIS in Mosul. ISIS fighters launched attacks against Peshmerga at a large silo in Sinjar, west of Mosul, using three VBIEDs on October 19 and against Popular Mobilization forces in Bashir, southeast of Kirkuk, on October 20. Two ISIS SVEST attackers also detonated their explosives at the home of a Sunni tribal Popular Mobilization leader in al-Mutasim sub-district, southeast of Samarra, on October 21.
ISIS Mounts Stiff Defense of Mosul’s Environs
ISIS’s combined its violent attack into Kirkuk City with stiff resistance in the vicinity of Mosul, resulting in slowed progress for advancing forces in the fight to recapture Mosul. ISIS launched spectacular attacks on October 21 against the ISF and Peshmerga near the village of Batnaya, north of Mosul, the town of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, and near Bartalla, east of Mosul, which the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) recaptured on October 20. The ISF did manage to clear ISIS from most of the eastern bank of the Tigris River between Qayyarah and Makhmur on October 20 and 21, recapturing the villages of Duwayzat and Sultan Abdullah. However, outside of limited gains by the 9th and 18th Federal Police Brigade north of Qayyarah in Tel al-Nasr, al-Shakk, and the Mishraq Sulphur Plant, the ISF made limited gains on Mosul’s southern axis. Progress may also have been delayed by a 48-hour pause instituted by the ISF on October 19. However, the ISF continued to conduct operations across the Mosul theater during this time, indicating that the pause was not the driving factor in the slowed progress. ISIS’s zone defense across Iraq and spectacular attacks targeting forward-deployed security in the Mosul operations area substantially arrested the progress of the Mosul operation. Meanwhile, a U.S. serviceman was killed near Bashiqa as he was advising security forces, the fourth U.S. serviceman killed in action in anti-ISIS operations.
ISIS’s attacks in Kirkuk province and elsewhere outside of Mosul are a classic zone defense from ISIS’s 2015 playbook, in which ISIS attacked separate locations while facing a counter-attack it could deflect. The attack on Kirkuk City is a demonstration that ISIS still maintains lethal attack capabilities there, and furthermore that it can still mount a sophisticated defense. ISIS’s strike into Kirkuk was likely calculated to force the PUK to withdraw its Peshmerga forces away from operations in the vicinity of Mosul towards Kirkuk to arrest the progress of anti-ISIS operations east of Mosul. ISIS also launched other attacks to force security forces to consider withdrawing from Mosul to secure other parts of Iraq.
The Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga, and the Popular Mobilization should expect ISIS to target frontlines away from the Mosul operations. ISIS may use its resurgent attack capabilities in Diyala Province and Baghdad to deploy spectacular attacks against civilian targets. ISIS is actively resisting security forces advances around Mosul, and has prepared for a difficult defense of the city itself, but the attack on Kirkuk is indicative that ISIS’s prepared defense may be more sophisticated and remains a serious threat despite its recent losses in Ninewa Province. ISIS’s defensive strategy may extend across the whole of Iraq, and possibly beyond.