KIRKUK, Iraq — Flags bearing Shiite slogans such as "Ya Hussein" flutter conspicuously every 20 meters or so on Kirkuk’s Republic Street, in a district filled with government buildings and the blackened facades of hotels attacked during an Oct. 21 assault by over 100 Islamic State (IS) operatives.
The attack left over 100 people dead. Security forces said on Oct. 30 that operations to root out sleeper cells were ongoing.
Officials in the oil-rich Kirkuk, with its Kurdish-majority population located in territory disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, denied to Al-Monitor reports that some Sunni Arab internally displaced persons (IDPs) had been pushed out of the city after the attack.
"’That’s absolutely a lie," Gov. Najmaldin Karim told Al-Monitor in reference to reports of "collective punishment" being inflicted on local Sunni Arabs subsequent to the attack.
Karim, a peshmerga fighter in his younger days, had studied in Mosul and became a neurosurgeon in the United States before returning to Iraq in 2009. He became governor of Kirkuk in 2011.
He said, "People periodically go back. For example, the prime minister and the Migration and Displacement Ministry have declared Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province safe to return to. So whoever wants to return, we help them."
On the ethnic breakdown of the city, he noted, "I would say 65% are Kurds — 60-65%. The rest is divided between Arabs and Turkmens."
The governor said that only IDPs from Hawija continued to be let into the city "because Hawija is part of Kirkuk," adding, "We are not letting other people come in because we just don’t have room for them."
First Lt. Sherzad, who did not give his first name, told Al-Monitor from the Asayish security forces headquarters in the Arab-majority area of Domiz that two of his fellow officers had been killed that night. The headquarters had been surrounded and hit from the vantage point of a Sunni mosque nearby, which had also been attacked.
Sherzad took Al-Monitor to see the home of an officer injured in the attack, gesturing to a burned frame on his car. IS "thought they could set up their own ministries of defense and justice" and take over the city, he said.
They had assumed they would have the support of the IDPs and the local Sunni Arabs, but they didn’t, he added. Four of the attackers were killed. They were "real IS," Sherzad stressed, "with their long hair and Afghan clothes."
Officers whipped out cell phones to show photos of young men with long, wavy hair splayed around their open-mouthed and closed-eyed corpses, shirts torn open to expose bullet-riddled, bloodied chests.
Abu Quddama, an IS leader whose real name was Salam Faisal, was among them, he said. He added that like Faisal, most of the attackers were from Hawija.
A planned offensive to take back Hawija has been postponed repeatedly over the past month, Al-Monitor was told by several sources within the KRG. No reason was given.
"They came in the middle of the night," Sherzad said, referring to the over 100 IS operatives. "According to the information we have, they walked all the way from Hawija to the Shiite-majority village of Bashir."
A gap between Hashd Al-Shaabi and peshmerga control of the territory, he said, was exploited by the group to "smuggle themselves" in, hiding in fields and creeping through an area he said Hashd Al-Shaabi — the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) — was in charge of.
Another officer who asked that his name not be used for security reasons claimed that the PMU had "turned a blind eye" toward the incursion, saying, "I have a friend in a Turkmen group of [PMU] who said that he was called back to be on duty that Thursday" before the attack in the early morning of Friday. "They knew about it but didn’t tell us," he said.
Sherzad said that there are about 1,800 families in the Domiz neighborhood and that virtually all of them are Arabs. He added, "The Arabs here are educated. They were with the Baath Party, educated people. So when the attack happened, they helped us out."
In response to a question on whether Sunni Arab homes had been destroyed in the city and their inhabitants forced to leave after the attack, he said that such a thing had not happened in the Domiz area but "in the Haziran neighborhood, yes." He said, "The police did it because the people had been involved with IS."
Kirkuk police chief Sarhad Muhammed told Al-Monitor, "Some Arabs were displaced out of Kirkuk, but we have solved that problem."
Asked to explain, he said, "Some parties were involved in displacing Arabs, but [the Kirkuk governor] got involved and we stopped it."
On Oct. 30, as Al-Monitor was speaking to the police chief — referred to simply as "Sarhad" by the local Kurdish population, among whom he is well known for his years of fighting various terrorist groups, his distinctive mustache and a reputation for affability — an operation was ongoing to clear the Laylan subdistrict of Kirkuk, within which two of the three governorate’s IDP camps are located.
He told Al-Monitor that 49 IS members had recently been killed in Laylan, "where the villagers are informing us about where they are."
The militants "hide in the rivers and the fields," the police chief said. "They are living where animals live. They live like animals."
He echoed the Asayish officer, saying, "We used to think that the Sunni Arabs would help IS, but in this attack we have found out that instead they are helping the police and the Asayish."
In response to a question about the reports of home demolitions, Karim said, "First of all, we didn’t demolish them. I think people took it upon themselves, but we stopped it. Because we want to make sure that these people have a place to go to, we transferred them to the camps and — they’re not supposed to be in those places."
He went on, "It all happened in one day. When we found out, we told them to stop because we need to transfer the people. And that is what we do with [this type of thing]."
He added, "We have 70,000 IDP students studying in our schools. So I think the lady from the human rights — the representative from the UN — should talk about these things and not listen to some lies."
However, "We will have them all go back," he said. "They cannot stay here forever. There are a lot of places that have been liberated. In Diyala province, in Salahuddin province, in Anbar. So these people need to go back their places. Saddam Hussein tried to wipe out Kurds from this city, and we are not going to have it done in the name of IDPs."