A string of attacks on the northern Iraqi cities of Erbil and Kirkuk over the weekend took Kurdish security forces by surprise, raising concerns that the self-styled Islamic State (IS) has sleeper cells in cities outside of its control.
“Since they are failing on the front lines and incurring major losses, they’ve switched tactics to suicide bombings and assassinations,” says Brig. Gen. Bamo Omar Arif, who commands a special task force in Kirkuk.
Arif said that Islamic State fighters targeted two outposts used by his men. A third explosion targeted a weapons market in Kirkuk whose main customers are the peshmerga, Kurdish militia fighters.Two members of the Asayish security forces were also kidnapped overnight Saturday.
Saturday’s violence in Kirkuk killed at least 21 people and wounded 118 others, according to an Agence France-Presse tally based on the testimony of security and medical sources. Arif said three of his men were among those killed. The Islamic State issued a statement on Sunday saying that the attacks were carried out by foreign fighters.
“These attacks shows that the Islamic State has sleeper cells and that they can activate them whenever they want to,” says Kawa Hassan, an analyst at Hivos, a Dutch NGO, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, which evolved into what is now the IS, carried out suicide attacks throughout Iraq for much of the past decade, killing thousands and deepening Iraq's Sunni-Shiite sectarian civil war. At that time, the group was fighting tens of thousands of US soldiers equipped with the best weaponry and air support that money could buy, and it learned how to evade detection.
As the US and other Western powers ramp up military support for Kurdish fighters holding the line against IS in Iraq's north, those past lessons are likely to be put to use to sow chaos behind opponents' lines. IS is already making some headway.
On Saturday, a car bomb went off in the Kurdish city of Erbil, the regional capital. Four people were wounded in the explosion, according to local media. The Kurdish news site Rudaw reported that the bomb was strapped to a car with a Baghdad plate. It was the first car bomb in Erbil since September 2013.
“Abu- Bakr Al Baghdadi [the leader of IS] wants to sent a message that they can wage a frontal war… [and] remind Kurdish and Iraqi authorities that they can revert to their traditional tool of trade, which is suicide attacks,” says Mr. Hassan. The use of foreign fighters sends a message to potential recruits that IS is truly waging “global jihad.”
Trouble in Kirkuk
The oil-rich, disputed city of Kirkuk, to which Arabs and Kurds both lay claim, has some of the tightest security measures in northern Iraq, with checkpoints guarding its entrances and streets. But it is also surrounded by areas under IS control and is a predictable target for the salafi jihadi group and its sympathizers.
Kurdish peshmerga seized Kirkuk in mid-June, ostensibly to defend the city from Islamic State militants after the Iraqi Army retreated, leaving military bases there vulnerable to plunder. In recent weeks, security had improved in Kirkuk and clashes between peshmerga and IS tapered off.
One peshmerga outpost in Kirkuk is at a massive construction site. There, Kurdish forces monitor the comings and goings at a nearby Islamic school, allegedly a meeting point for IS sympathizers, and the home of a former officer in Saddam Hussein's old Iraqi army.
On the city's southern outskirts, Kurdish forces have dug trenches and positioned artillery just a stone's throw away from the Taza power station that feeds the city and its suburbs. IS fighters are about a mile away, and closer in to town concrete blasts walls and checkpoints protect the entrances of the city. Arabs passing through must have a Kurdish resident vouch for them.
“We think that Kirkuk is safe right now, out of the reach of ISIS,” Wasta Rasul, the commander of military operations in south Kirkuk, said on Aug. 17.
Not everyone agrees. “Despite all the security presence in Kirkuk, it is still a no man’s land,” says Hassan, the analyst.
In a statement, the IS said the attacks in Erbil and Kirkuk were retaliation for the Kurdish alliance with the United States and claimed that two German fighters carried out the suicide bombings in Kirkuk.
The wave of violence in the north comes in the wake of a massacre in a Sunni mosque in Diyala Province, allegedly by a Shiite militia, that raised sectarian tensions and may hamstring efforts by prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to form a unity government.
Sunni officials suspended talks with the ruling Shiite bloc, the National Alliance, in protest over the Friday attack that killed 68 Sunni worshipers in the ethnically mixed village of Imam Wais, 75 miles north of Baghdad.