Iraq’s armed forces began a major operation called "Heroes of Iraq - Victory of Sovereignty" to clear remnants of the Islamic State in the northern province of Kirkuk at dawn Tuesday. The operation comes ahead of key talks with the United States later this month.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi visited the operation in its early hours and social media was later flooded with photos of him walking alongside the forces and members of a local family. He then discussed the operation during a regularly scheduled cabinet meeting in the capital.
Kadhimi was sworn in on May 6 after several months of a government void.
Attacks and intimidation continue in the southern areas of Kirkuk province against locals and the various forces deployed there, as well as in neighboring Diyala and Salahuddin. However, the strategic location and disputed status of Kirkuk render it of particular importance.
The operation aims to clear both the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad but back under Baghdad control since late 2017, and Salahuddin.
Weapons caches, hideouts, IEDs and other supplies were found and at least two “terrorists” were killed during the operation on Tuesday, according to a statement by the Iraqi Security Media Cell.
US-led international coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III noted in a voice message to Al-Monitor Wednesday that “the Iraqi security forces are focusing significant energy on defeating the remnants” of IS “south of Kirkuk and along the Hamrin-Makhmour mountains, Nineveh plains and some areas in Anbar.”
“The coalition continues to support with high level advising,” he continued. “There were military officers who participated in the planning process. We shared intelligence and, in the first day of the operation we conducted three airstrikes in support of the Iraqi security forces on the ground. This area has had a presence of [IS] holdouts because of the terrain. The terrain, the topography is difficult to access. There are mountain and cave complexes and because the people of Iraq reject” IS, he said, the international terrorist organization “has been forced into mountains and desert areas, where they are traveling on motorbikes into villages to commit crimes to raise money” or to commit “acts of terror or attacks on security forces.”
Caggins stressed that the “Heroes of Iraq campaign is going to happen in multiple stages throughout 2020” and brings together multiple Defense and Interior Ministry forces as well as both Sunni and Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
Bringing together the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry and PMU in a manner vaguely reminiscent — though on a much lower scale — as was seen during the war against IS between 2014 and 2017, the operation may also be intended to boost morale, provide a show of strength and foster a sense of unity.
In a press conference posted on YouTube late in the day on Tuesday, spokesman for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces Brig. Gen. Yahia Rasoul detailed the operation.
The "Victory of Sovereignty" name may be a rebuttal of the oft-heard accusations that Iraq is under undue influence or the control of the United States or Iran.
Since previous Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory against IS on Dec. 9, 2017, Iraq has struggled to deal with reconstruction efforts and returning internally displaced citizens to their home regions, non-state actors, economic woes, regional tensions and IS remnants. Both the United States and Iran have provided support in various ways and maintain geopolitical interest in the country.
Protests over unemployment and lack of public services in Iraq’s oil capital of Basra in 2018 were followed by massive demonstrations across the central and southern parts of the country starting in October 2019 that brought down the government months later.
The protests were still limping on and occasionally flaring up in some squares across the country as of early June, even after the new government was sworn in. Many protesters claim that Iran-backed armed groups were behind the deaths of many of the hundreds who lost their lives. Chants and placards held aloft during the early months railed against both US and Iranian influence, with “we want a homeland” a popular rallying call.
Meanwhile, IS sleeper cells have long taken advantage of security gaps between KRG and central government territories as well as persisting grievances among some parts of the population.
The last IS-held town to be retaken in Iraq was Rawa in western Anbar in 2017, but Hawija and nearby villages in Kirkuk province had been left until after the months-long battle to regain Mosul.
This reporter accompanied the PMU Liwa Ali al-Akbar during the October 2017 operation to clear Hawija. The battle was unexpectedly easy compared to the tough fights for the various districts of Mosul and other areas of the country during which she had also accompanied Iraqi forces.
Many claimed at that time that the IS fighters who had withstood such a long siege simply vanished, while others posited they had shaved their beards and fled to the KRG or to the nearby Hamrin mountains, which acts as a separating line between the western part of the Kirkuk region and northeastern Salahuddin.
The Hamrin mountain chain stretches from this point to near the Iranian border in Diyala province — which has for months seen the highest number of attacks — and has long been what some Iraqi Kurds consider what they would like as the border of a future independent state.
Several weapons caches were found and two soldiers were injured by IS shooting from tunnels during a December 2017 operation into the Hamrin mountains this reporter accompanied local forces on a few weeks after the national declaration of victory against the international terrorist organization.
The Heroes of Victory operation that began on Tuesday is also referred to as "Heroes of Victory Two," as it was preceded by another one with the same name that started on Feb. 12 and focused on Iraq’s westernmost region of Anbar to the Syrian border.
The current one aims to clear an area that may continue to be problematic until several thorny issues are worked out between the KRG and Baghdad. Nevertheless, it serves to show Iraq’s continued commitment to fighting IS amid a multitude of challenges facing the new government.