Arrests and attacks continued in early October in parts of Iraq’s oil-rich Kirkuk region amid conflicting reports about airstrikes and mass round-up operations.
An Oct. 5 attack allegedly by the Islamic State on Iraqi federal police in Hawija in the southwestern part of the region left four dead and three wounded, including an officer, the Iraqi Security Media Cell reported.
The mayor of the Zab subdistrict of Kirkuk’s Hawija district complained Oct. 4 to an Iraqi media outlet that the 51st Iraqi Army Brigade was conducting “unjustified” arrests on a daily basis of up to 40 people at a time despite a relatively stable security situation.
Though the individuals are usually released shortly afterward, he said, the arrests continue to undermine trust between the local population and the security forces.
A local security official contacted by Al-Monitor Oct. 8 said many men had been arrested near Hawija but that he did not know the exact number. He claimed that it had been in connection with an explosion but did not know further details, simply stressing, “We work according to law in the Kirkuk region.”
The predominantly rural Sunni Arab area is between the notoriously difficult, insurgent-prone Hamrin and Makhoul Mountains marking the region’s boundary with Salah al-Din and the multiethnic disputed city of Kirkuk to the east.
Iraq’s intelligence services announced Oct. 7 that a local "Sharia mufti" of IS’ Wilayat al-Kirkuk/Rashad district had been arrested by an Iraqi federal police intelligence unit, according to Al-Alam. The news outlet noted that several members of the man’s family had also been involved in IS and that he had confessed to being part of the organization and to providing logistical support to it. The news was confirmed to Al-Monitor by a security source in Kirkuk.
In 2018 when this reporter visited Rashad, a Sunni town southeast of Hawija with a reputation for having many IS-supporting inhabitants, a billboard with a large photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei thanking the “mujahedeen” of the Shiite-led Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) for their work was placed prominently near the main road.
Most of the homes in the town center were at that time abandoned with only a few being used by the PMU, who had played a major role in retaking it from IS in late 2017.
News of the arrest of IS affiliates is frequent in Iraq even now, almost three years after victory was declared against the international terrorist organization in Iraq in December 2017.
The alleged IS mufti of Mosul during the group’s control of the city — a severely obese man whose photo was widely circulated on social media after his arrest — was found still in the city earlier this year.
However, former international anti-IS coalition spokesman Col. Myles B. Caggins III, who left the position in September, has over recent months frequently stressed to this journalist that despite continuing attacks and the presence of IS cells in Iraq, he did not see anything resembling what he would consider a true “resurgence” of the group.
Though a risk-management service reported several airstrikes by international coalition aircraft on the Makhoul Mountains near Hawija on Oct. 5, coalition spokesperson Col. Wayne Marotto told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp from Baghdad on Oct. 8, “The coalition did not conduct airstrikes in Makhoul” on that day.
Already scant on-the-ground reporting from the area has dwindled to almost none at all this year, partially as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
A local journalist in the Salah al-Din region to the west of Hawija who this journalist has met with frequently in previous visits to the region but did not want to be named told Al-Monitor in an Oct. 8 WhatAapp message, “IS has recently started to be active in the areas of Hawija and southern Kirkuk in Daquq and the border separating Diyala and Salah al-Din” as well as “on the road linking Mosul and Salah al-Din from the side of the mountain chain of Makhoul.”
The local journalist added, “Yesterday they infiltrated into the district of al-Dour in Salah al-Din across the Tigris River but were dealt with by the 9th Brigade of the PMU,” affiliated with the Badr Organization.
This Al-Monitor correspondent was one of few international journalists present during the early October 2017 liberation operation against IS for the city of Hawija and some of the surrounding villages. She accompanied the PMU Ali al-Akbar Brigade and was present when they retook parts of the city center and a village in which the only casualty was a teenage girl, said to have been “caught in the crossfire.”
The battle was surprisingly easy and locals claimed that hundreds of IS members had simply “vanished.”
There was at the time some question as to whether it would have been better to use local forces and not ones from the south who did not know the terrain or have an extensive network of local contacts to rely on for intelligence. Nonetheless, the Ali al-Akbar Brigade spearheaded the advance and other PMU factions from the south took part.
Earlier this year, Sunni tribal fighters from the southwestern part of Kirkuk province put on a sort of military parade to show unity with the Shiite-led PMU operating in the area in their combined efforts to prevent an IS resurgence after a rash of attacks in the preceding weeks.
Shortly thereafter, the May 21 transfer of 176 detainees arrested on terrorism charges from Sulaimaniyah to Kirkuk led to some wariness at the time about the possibility that some might be released, but also praise. Many of the detainees on the list, of which this correspondent obtained a copy, were from Hawija and the surrounding villages.
Another issue that may eventually affect security in the area is that some former or current IS affiliates from the area are also believed to be in the al-Hol detention camp across the border in Syria. Thousands of Iraqis remain in the camp and the Syrian Democratic Forces have recently stated that the Syrians in the camp will be liberated. They did not specify what would happen to the Iraqis.
Given the longstanding security issues in the Hamrin Mountains and the gradual pullout of coalition troops underway, with several bases handed over to Iraqi forces this year, there may be risks associated with the return of any locals who spent the last few years with the international terrorist group and who may have been heavily indoctrinated even if they were not actual fighters.
The local journalist from Salah al-Din blamed government reliance on “Iran-backed militias” and corruption for what he sees as a burgeoning resurgence.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has vowed to get both under control. However, “unjustified” arrests and lack of trust between the local population and security forces may threaten any progress made in this area.