On Sunday Hasdt al-Shaabi forces began anti-terror operations in southwest Kirkuk, where they engaged a substantial force of Islamic State fighters. In the course of the battle, 27 Hasdt al-Shaabi were killed or captured in the province of Hawija over the span of several days. The operation was in an effort to combat known ISIS sleeper cells residing in the area. An official statement from the Hasdt al-Shaabi leadership read, “Yesterday night, the force was ambushed by a terrorist group from the area disguised in military uniform, resulting in violent clashes lasting more than two hours.”

Islamic State militants attacked the Hashdt al-Shaabi forces as the entered the area occupied by the outlying villages of Sahdunia and Shahria which are nearly 45 kilometers southwest from Kirkuk. It is not known yet where or not this was a staged effort or a hasty ambush executed by the ISIS militants. The initial force that was ambushed, remained engaged for the duration but reinforcements were eventually sent in and were able to kill the ISIS combatants. A spokesman for Hasdt al-Shaabi, Ali Husseini, claimed that their forces were besieged and had to bolster there numbers through the integration of local federal police forces which in turn enabled their prolonged sustainment.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Prime Minister, told local media, “We are determined to eliminate these sleeper cells and terrorists, and I order the commanders of operations there to investigate the circumstances of the incident and take necessary proceedings in this regard,” and that Iraq was prepared to, “prosecute and punish the perpetrators,” should any survive.

Hawija is swath of land and large city in what was southern Iraqi Kurdistan that has been under Islamic State control since the beginning of the conflict that has now been going for 3 years straight. It was the site of a major prisoner extraction raid carried out by Kurdish ant-terror forces in 2015, an operation that resulted in the death of a United States Delta Force soldier, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler. The recent efforts by Hasdt al-Shaabi to take control of the area come in the wake of a Kirkuk territorial turn over, in October, by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that previously occupied the region.

A large number of Kirkuk residence have come forward to express concern over the consistently deteriorating security situation there. There have been accusations of Arabization and displacement efforts by the Kurdish community as well. According to Kurdish authorities, 40 Kurdish citizens have gone missing or been kidnapped and claims that 19 Turkmen have suffered the same fate have come out as well.

Feature Image Courtesy of Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons