x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

After liberation of Tal Afar, Iraq sets sights on Hawija district

Forces have been sent from Baghdad to prepare for the upcoming battle against ISIL, but the spokesman for the Iraqi army's Joint Operations Command said the campaign would not be rushed

Members of the Iraqi Shiite Saraya Al Salam (Peace Brigade) militia take part in a military operation near the city of Samarra city on August 4, 2017. Iraqi forces in Salaheddin province have launched an operation to secure towns liberated from ISIL in parallel with an operation to retake the town of Hawija in neighbouring Kirkuk province. Bareq Al Samarrai / EPA
Members of the Iraqi Shiite Saraya Al Salam (Peace Brigade) militia take part in a military operation near the city of Samarra city on August 4, 2017. Iraqi forces in Salaheddin province have launched an operation to secure towns liberated from ISIL in parallel with an operation to retake the town of Hawija in neighbouring Kirkuk province. Bareq Al Samarrai / EPA

Iraqi forces have been deployed to the outskirts of Kirkuk city, Baghdad says, amid preparations to liberate the nearby district of Hawija from ISIL fighters.

“Additional forces are sent from Baghdad to prepare for the upcoming battle. We are not going to rush this campaign,” said Brigadier General Yahya Rasul, a spokesman for the Iraqi army’s Joint Operations Command (JOC).

“Our priority will be the evacuation of civilians trapped in Hawija — located 300 kilometres north of Baghdad — by ISIL terrorists. Our plan is unequivocal in this regard."

Brig Gen Rasul said Iraqi forces would ensure trapped civilians had been freed and were safe "before moving in to the targeted district".

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The JOC, meanwhile, said Iraqi aircraft had dropped "millions of leaflets" on Hawija to inform residents that the rule of "the terrorist gangs of ISIL will soon be over".

Residents were urged to "keep away" from ISIL fighters who could become the target of air strikes by Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition battling the extremists.

The leaflets also called on ISIL militants to "surrender and give up their weapons".

The preparations to retake Hawija, located in Kirkuk province, come after prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced the recapture of the town of Tal Afar and its surrounding areas on Thursday last week, bringing all of Nineveh province under government control.

US-backed Iraqi forces have now recaptured all territory previously controlled by the extremists except for Hawija — considered ISIL's main Iraqi bastion since the group lost Mosul to government forces in July — and three other pockets of territory near the border with Syria.

Mohamed Hineidi, a senior analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, predicted that the battle for Hawija would be both challenging and lengthy.

"IS realises that very soon it will lose all territory, including Hawija … but it will try and put up a strong fight in order to provide itself with the ability to project power to launch terror attacks across Iraq in the future," he said.

"An indicator that the battle will be protracted is the lack of escape routes that ISIL can utilise — it is surrounded on all sides by enemy territory."

Mr Hineidi added that Hawija had been a security concern for Baghdad even before it was taken over by ISIL in June 2014.

"Hawija has always been a security challenge due to Sunni discontent towards the government, and the city's strategic location as a juncture between Mosul and Kirkuk," he said.

Kirkuk governor Jamaldin Karim, meanwhile, said Hawija had become a "haven" for ISIL fighters and warned that the extremists' presence there posed "a serious security threat to the surrounding cities".

The city of Kirkuk lies just 66 kilometres to the north-east of Hawija.

Not only is Kirkuk province facing a security threat from ISIL, but it is also one of the territories disputed by the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Home to a mix of Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds, Kirkuk is often referred to as "little Iraq", with most politicians in the Iraqi government believing that the province represents the conflicts between the nation's diverse communities.

Kurds, on the other hand, refer to Kirkuk as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”, the territory they lost and yearn to get back.

Read more: Kirkuk may be ticking time bomb as it joins Kurdish referendum