Iraq (Aribization map, Twitter source)
As of today there have been no reports that the Hawija offensive has actually begun, although last I checked Twitter was clogged with reports of civilians fleeing the area in lieu of the expected three pronged attack. Iraq is not one of my fortes, but due to my recent personal interest in this area, and the future of Kurdistan as a whole, I've decided to share what I've come to find out regarding the various details and open ended concerns regarding this highly anticipated attack on one of the larger ISIS Iraqi strongholds.
Hawija (Kurdish for wild carrot), has been dominated by ISIS forces since June 6th of 2014, from this outpost ISIS has led four large multi-pronged attacks and 300 minor ones. It sits at the juncture of Kirkuk and Mosul, both oil rich regions and of great importance to local, regional and international players. Recent reports of ISIS barricading the main gates to Hawija suggest that ISIS is switching to a more defensive stance as the attack approaches. Near the end of September there were reports that an Iraqi airstrike killed the al-Sham governor of Hawija, Abu Nasser Al-Zubai, and 13 of his aids while they were in a tunnel. There are also claims there are no civilians inside Hawija and that all that remain are Iraqis and foreign fighters, but this conflicts with current reports of civilians escaping as well as some ISIS militants pretending to be civilians to stage suicide attacks. ISIS militants that escaped the recent Shargat (Al-Shirquat), offensive and headed towards Hawija were reportedly executed by ISIS. Peshmerga forces said they are expecting 150K IDPs (internally displaced people), to arrive in already overloaded refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Peshmerga also stated that the citizens of Hawija have been asked to rise up as the offensive begins.
The offensive will be coming from three directions and is expected to have both ground and air operations. From the temporary US coalition airbase in Qayyarah to the North, where several 100 US forces are currently training Iraqi soldiers, airstrikes such as the ones in the Shargat attack will be used to "prep" the battlefields of Hawija. Let's just hope the US coalition forces utilize a reasonable ISR:CAS ratio and doesn't have any "accidents" like the one in Deir Ezzor this time.
The Iraqi army (being led by Wasi al-Asi), and accompanied by the Shia militias of Hashd al-Shaabi (being led by Muhammed Mahdi al-Bayati/Saed Ghalib Yasiri), will presumably be coming from Shirqat in the East and quite possibly from Qayyarah and/or Makhmur in the North. Peshmerga forces being comprised mostly of PUK, PDK as well as other Kurdish and Sunni brigades being led by Rasoul Omar will be approaching from Kirkuk in the West. Peshmerga have plans to take both Riaz and Rashad on their way to Hawija where one of their missions is to rescue Pershmerga prisoners believed to be held by ISIS as well as plans to build a bridge on the Tigris river.. After Hawija is secured Peshmerga do have plans to assist in Mosul operations but have what they call "geographic limitations" while Barzani was also quoted saying "We are not extending territories, we're just regaining what was originally ours".
This may all seem pretty straightforward until one peers beneath the surface to find innumerable concerns voice from both the Kurdish and Sunni populace in regards to the participation of al-Shaabi as the mostly Sunni populace fears retribution from Shia militias. Muhammed Khidhr of the local Arab bloc recently said "We can only trust Sunni forces and Peshmerga to be responsible for the towns security." Following the 2013 crackdown on Sunni protestors sectarian tensions have yet to subside. The US State Department spokesperson John Kirby when questioned about al-Shaabi's human rights record of violations stated "They [al-Shaabi] have been useful in helping expel Daesh from areas of Iraq, and they will continue to be useful." Human Rights Watch has sent a letter of concern to al Abadi and Barzani asking forces "that are implicated in laws of war violations, including the Badr Brigades, the Hezbollah Brigades (Kata'ib Hezbollah), and other groups withing the PMF [Popular Mobilization Force/al-Shaabi], from participating in the planned operations to take Mosul."
It seems quite obvious there's a bit of disagreement regarding participation, but this is not the only concern. Hawija was historically part of Kirkuk and is well known farm land. Before various bouts of Arabization, and more recently ISIS occupation, it was populated with Kurds, Sunnis and Turkmen. Peshmerga have stressed that Hawija should be part of Kirkuk province. Both governments of Iraq and Turkey have expressed fears of a growing Kurdistan, but as we near the Mosul offensive there are both reports that Iraq has accused Turkish forces in Bashiqua of adding to the conflict as well as being approved by the Iraqi government, adding to the confusion. Erdogan and Turkish professor of international law Mustafa Sitki, claims that Turkey has the right by international law to participate in Mosul operations on grounds of terrorism. Turkmen in the area of Kirkuk raised concerns regarding a recent visit by HDP leader Selahattin Domitas and considered it proof of a Kurdish conspiracy to erase Turkmen from the area. Demartis said his visit by was to unite Kurdish parties in an agreement to face existing challenges and threats. While Hawija is called the "Kurdish Jerusalem", it is also called the "heart of Iraqi Turkmen".
Historically the Kurds have been back-stabbed 4 times (UK in the 1920's, USSR in the 1940's & US in the 1970's and again in the 90's), not to mention a sloppy Manbij operation recently on the part of US airstrikes as well as overlooking al-Shaabi's war crime record... as if there were no questions about the US vetting process. With 935,000 barrels of oil a day and recent conflicts over the revenue, with internal contention among some Kurds, with latent fears of Arabization, with local, regional and international players all with their own designs, with contention over the future of Hawija even before the battle has begun, with archeological sites plundered and people persecuted, with all this and more I feel there are reasons to be concerned about Hawija and the upcoming offensives. Nor can I stand idly by while Turkey puts out maps like this...
Oil fields south of Qayyarah on fire
My questions to the Journalist of 'The battle in Iraq that could turn the tide against Islamic State: The fight for Mosul is about to begin' and of & Editors of the Los Angles Times