KIRKUK, Iraq: An ongoing attack by the Islamic State group in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk has killed at least 46 people, mostly members of the security forces, security and medical sources said on Saturday.
“We have 46 dead and 133 wounded, most of them members of the security services, as result of the clashes with Daesh [IS],” an interior ministry brigadier general told Agence France-Presse.
The toll was confirmed by a source at the Kirkuk health directorate. The brigadier general also said at least 25 jihadist attackers had been killed since the raid was launched early on Friday.
Jihadists staged a brazen raid on the Iraqi city of Kirkuk Friday, in what appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from the huge offensive against their Mosul bastion.
Residents awoke to the sound of shooting and praise for the “Islamic State” blaring through mosque loudspeakers.
Some attackers, whom one senior Kirkuk official numbered around 100, carried grenades and wore explosives vests or belts in the assault claimed by the Islamic State group.
An Agence France-Presse reporter attended the interrogation of one suspected jihadist who said after being captured by Kurdish forces that the attack was designed to ease the pressure on the Mosul front to the northeast.
“Today’s attack was one of caliph Baghdadi’s plans to demonstrate that the Islamic State is remaining and expanding and reduce the pressure on the Mosul front,” he said.
The young man in a grey tracksuit had his hands cuffed and gave his name as Hani Aydan Mustafa, but his role in IS was unclear.
Two years ago in Mosul, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a “caliphate” straddling Iraq and Syria.
One of its main slogans was to remain and expand but it has been shrinking steadily since last year and losing Mosul could mean the end of its days as a land-holding force in Iraq.
The attack on Kirkuk, a strategic city some 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad, demonstrated the group’s continued ability to time its attacks and grab headlines.
“Around morning prayers, I saw several Dawaesh [IS fighters] enter Al-Mohammadi mosque,” Haidar Abdelhussein, a teacher in the Tesaeen neighbourhood, told AFP.
“They used the loudspeakers to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is greatest] and ‘Dawla al-Islam baqiya’ [Islamic State remains],” he said.
At least five suicide bombers targeted government buildings, including Kirkuk’s main police headquarters. At least six policemen and 12 jihadists were killed in clashes.
A senior police officer said the main obstacle to flushing out holdout attackers was the risk from snipers.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office announced that reinforcements would be dispatched to Kirkuk to help track down remaining attackers and end the crisis.
A journalist for a local Turkmen television station was killed by an IS sniper, and health officials also said 51 wounded residents were evacuated to nearby hospitals.
A curfew was in place and sporadic gunfire could still be heard as night fell on what was now a war zone, with armored vehicles taking up position and security forces manning rooftops or crouching behind walls.
IS is unlikely to hold positions in Kirkuk for long, and its attack had no immediate impact on the offensive against Mosul, the biggest Iraqi military operation in years.
The governor of Kirkuk, Najmeddin Karim, told AFP he suspected the involvement of IS sleeper cells.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters have played a major role in the Mosul advance, and both they and federal security forces have made gains on several fronts.
Political and military leaders have praised what they say is speedier than expected progress, with IS offering deadly but so far ineffective resistance as forces backed by air strikes steamroll towards the edge of Iraq’s second city.