ISHM: September 1 – 7, 2017


Key Takeaways:

  • Hawija Operations “Imminent” – Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has reportedly ordered the start of military operations to clear the city of Hawija of ISIS militants. As many as 40 thousand civilians are believed to be trapped in the city in Kirkuk Province, along with one to two thousand ISIS militants intent on using the civilians as human shields. The Iraqi Air Force has dropped millions of leaflets across Hawija, announcing that the city is “close to freedom,” and encouraging residents to avoid zones of active fighting. Popular Mobilization Units, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi Army units are all expected to take part in the operations. Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, a spokesperson for the Iraqi military, said that civilian protection will be among the highest priorities. more…
  • Intense Fighting Continues Near Tal Afar – On September 6, Iraqi Security Forces announced that the area of Ayadiyah, approximately 10 kilometers north of Tal Afar in Ninewa Province, has been cleared of ISIS militants. The small town saw intense fighting in the days during and after operations to clear nearby Tal Afar, and was the retreat destination for hundreds of ISIS militants. One Iraqi soldier described the town as “the gates of Hell.” As many as one thousand ISIS militants were killed in three days of intense fighting there, according to Iraqi General Amir Yarallah, commander of Tal Afar operations. more…
  • Barzani Doubles Down on Referendum – President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq Masoud Barzani, said that if a majority of voters choose independence during the upcoming referendum, it will mean a declaration of an independent State of Kurdistan, strengthening the rhetoric on implications for the September 25 vote. Barzani also said that Kirkuk is a part of the Kurdish identity and cannot be separated from Kurdistan. The inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdistan Region continues to be a high point of contention between the region’s Kurdish, and Arab and Turkmen populations. more…
  • ISIS Militants Released by Hezbollah May Have Reached Iraq – On September 4, The Washington Post reported that several hundred ISIS militants released by the Lebanese Hezbollah, arrived in the western Anbar cities of Rawa and Ana on September 1, after using a series of back roads to evade U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes. U.S. and international coalition partners have been patrolling the convoy of Syrian ISIS militants released by Hezbollah in late August, in a deal that allowed the militants to travel to ISIS-held portions of eastern Syria in exchange for the bodies of Lebanese soldiers captured by the militant group in 2014. The deal was met with outrage from Iraqi military and political leaders, fearful that the arrival of the militants in Iraq would turn back progress made against ISIS insurgents in Anbar. more…

Please note: This week’s edition of ISHM is an abridged version of our weekly publication due to research team transitions. We will return to our regular schedule on Thursday, September 14.

For more background on most of the institutions, key actors, political parties, and locations mentioned in our takeaways or in the stories that follow, see the ISHM Reference Guide.

Hawija Operations “Imminent”

On September 1, a spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq announced that tens of thousands of civilians were still trapped in Hawija, where militants fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have been surrounded for months as Iraqi forces wait for the order to clear the city. ISIS is currently attempting to keep civilians trapped in the city, likely for use as human shields to limit the Iraqi-aligned forces’ ability to conduct airstrikes and use explosives.

On September 1, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reported that at least 125 Iraqi civilians were killed in August and 188 injured as a result of violence and terrorism. According to the report, Baghdad was the hardest hit, with 45 deaths, followed closely by Ninewa, with 36, where Iraqi-aligned forces were most actively fighting ISIS. The government of Anbar province, where the fight against ISIS is also active, did not release data to the UN, so it was not included in the report. Civilian casualties have declined significantly since June, when the brutal fight for Mosul was officially declared completed. In that month, 415 civilians were reported killed. In August of last year, UNAMI counted 473 deaths.

On September 1, a spokesperson for Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces outside Hawija declared that they were ready to begin clearing the city. Various security sources estimate that between one to two thousand ISIS militants remain in the city, where tens of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped with them. In addition to the PMUs, Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi military are stationed outside the city and will play a role in the fighting to come. In a sign that the operations were imminent, the Iraqi Air Force (IAF) dropped millions of leaflets across Hawija the day before, announcing that the people were “close to freedom.”

On September 2, ISIS leaders in Hawija reportedly began fleeing to remote areas in the Hamrin mountain range that straddles Salah ad-Din and Diyala provinces, where ISIS maintains a foothold through safe houses and local supporters. A local source said most of those fleeing were foreigners from other Arab countries, including a prominent Moroccan associate of the potentially deceased ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As the Iraqi-aligned forces prepare to enter Hawija, military leaders are watching to see if ISIS militants stand and fight to the death, or seek to flee or surrender with their lives.

On September 3, the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) called for the establishment of safety corridors to allow civilians to flee the fighting in Hawija. Unlike in the earlier battle to retake Tal Afar, Hawija is still believed to contain tens of thousands of civilians who risk being caught in the crossfire, particularly if the Iraqi military uses heavy ordnance and airstrikes to take out ISIS positions.

On September 4, Spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the start of the operation to clear Hawija of ISIS militants. The Iraqi military, Kurdish Peshmerga, and PMU forces have surrounded the city for months, but the Iraqi government has waited to begin operations until after Mosul and Tal Afar were retaken. Residents of Kirkuk province have called for months for more resources from the central government to clear the city, where at least 2000 militants are believed to be occupying the city and perpetrating grave human rights abuses against the population. Following the conclusion of the successful operation to clear Tal Afar last week, Hawija is the largest city still under ISIS’s control in Iraq.

On September 4, Jabbar al-Maamouri, a leader at the Popular Mobilization forces in Kirkuk, said that ISIS militants began evacuating from Hawija. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are expected to begin operations to clear Hawija soon, following their recent offensive in Tal Afar.

On September 5, several high ranking ISIS commanders, including Mahmood Khamis al-Fadhlawi, a leader of the organization’s infamous religious police department  surrendered themselves to the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in Hawija. Their surrender came on the same day that ISIS executed one of their own commanders, Ibrahim al-Aziz, in Khan village in the district of Hawija.

On September 5, Hawija residents attacked and killed four ISIS leaders, including the deputy chief in charge of ISIS militants in the district. In the past few days, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) airdropped millions of leaflets in Hawija, prompting residents to stay away from ISIS gatherings and warning that operations to clear the city were imminent.

On September 5, Idriss Haji Adel, an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political party in Daquq, approximately 60 km southeast of Hawija, said that ISIS leaders are fleeing Hawija in significant numbers. As a result, he said that citizens in Hawija feel free to use mobile phones and smoke cigars again — actions that were banned while ISIS was in control of the province of Hawija.

On September 5, Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, a spokesperson for the Iraqi military, emphasized that preventing civilian casualties would be the top priority in the ongoing operation to retake Hawija from ISIS militants. “We are not going to rush this campaign,” said Rasool. “Our priority will be the evacuation of civilians trapped in Hawija… Our plan is unequivocal in this regard.” Rasool added that the Iraqi-aligned forces involved in the fight – including the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Peshmerga, and assorted Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), would not move to engage ISIS in areas within Hawija until all the civilians had left. How feasible that plan is remains to be seen, however: ISIS often traps civilians within its military positions to use as human shields, and it may not be possible to wait indefinitely for imprisoned families to escape.

On September 6, ISIS caught more than 50 families of their own fighters trying to flee Hawija, some accompanied by their militant family members. It was unclear what would become of the apprehended families. ISIS frequently executes fleeing civilians to discourage escape attempts.

Intense Fighting Continues Near Tal Afar

On September 1, an Iraqi military spokesperson strongly denied rumors that any deals had been struck with ISIS militants to allow them to flee Tal Afar before the military moved in — a theory supported by some prominent generals and even Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki. The declaration comes after a rumor surfaced that the Peshmerga to the north of the city had quietly allowed hundreds of ISIS militants to surrender to Kurdish law enforcement to avoid being killed in the fighting to come. Unlike the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not use the death penalty, making them a particularly appealing option for embattled ISIS militants looking for a safer end to their fighting.

On September 2, Iraqi General Abdul Amir Yarallah, commander of the operations in Tal Afar, announced that the Iraqi military had killed over 1000 ISIS fighters in 3 days of intense fighting in the town of al-’Ayadiya, approximately 10 kilometers north of Tal Afar. On August 30, one Iraqi soldier described the fighting there as like “the gates of Hell,” and said the fighting was “multiple times worse” than the brutal fight to retake the Old City in Mosul. Initial reports indicated that only a few hundred militants escaped to al-’Ayadiya; the new casualty estimate indicates that the number was much higher.

On September 4, the 15th Infantry Division pursued and killed 55 additional ISIS members fleeing Tal Afar, which was declared cleared of ISIS militants on August 31. 26 of them were wearing explosive belts and were deemed suicide bombers.

On September 6, the Iraqi Army Media Force announced that the area of al-’Ayadiyah has been cleared of ISIS militants, after the 15th Infantry Division killed 17 more ISIS militants, including six wearing explosive belts.

Barzani Doubles Down on Referendum

On September 3, Kurdish sources revealed that an Iranian delegation offered to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil in exchange for postponing the impending referendum on Kurdish independence. The delegation, led by former Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danayi, met with President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani in Erbil, and with leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaimania. This is the second visit of the Iranian delegation to Erbil in a month. They offered mediation to resolve all outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad, including oil and financial receivables.

On September 3, the Independent High Commission for Elections and Referendum in the Kurdistan Region announced that promotion campaigns toward the referendum would last 18 days, beginning September 5 and until September 22. Legal action will take place against whoever campaigns outside these dates.

On September 4, the Independent High Commission for Elections and Referendum in Kurdistan Region announced that citizens in areas under the control of the Peshmerga forces in Ninewa Province would be eligible to participate in the upcoming Kurdish referendum. A total of approximately 5.5 million people in Kurdistan and Kurdish regions outside the administrative borders are expected to participate in the referendum, including in Kirkuk and Ninewa.

On September 4, two Kurdish parties, The Movement for Change (Gorran) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), issued a joint statement calling to postpone the referendum process, following a meeting between the parties. Their statement demanded that the time of the referendum must be decided by passing a law through the Kurdish parliament. The statement also demanded to cancel the “saving salary system,” by which public servants receive only part of their wages. The referendum is intended to be held September 25, while the parliamentary elections are planned for November 1.

On September 6, the Kurdistan Region President, Masoud Barzani, said during a press conference that a vote in favor of the independence of Kurdistan in a referendum on September 25 means a declaration of an independent State of Kurdistan. In response to a question about what the borders of a future State of Kurdistan would look like, Barzani said that Kirkuk is a part of Kurdish identity and cannot be separated from Kurdistan. He also said that the referendum will happen despite the “many” pressures to postpone it.

On September 6, Spokesman of the Independent High Commission for Elections and Referendum in Kurdistan Region, Shirwan Zarar, reported that eight organizations have registered to participate in monitoring the upcoming Kurdish referendum process.

ISIS Militants Released by Hezbollah May Have Reached Iraq

On August 28, the Lebanese government brokered a deal to allow hundreds of militants fighting for the Islamic State and al-Sham (ISIS) trapped by Hezbollah to travel to ISIS-held portions of eastern Syria in exchange for the bodies of eight Lebanese soldiers captured by the militant group in 2014. Under the deal, the fighters received buses, ambulances, and safe travel through government-held parts of Syria. Estimates range from 300-600 fighters in the convoy, along with their family members. While their declared final destination is in Syria, Iraqis worry that the fighters could easily travel into Iraq to reinforce positions there. The deal was met with outrage from Iraqi military and political leaders, who felt the the deal solved a problem for Lebanon by potentially shipping it to Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said “We fight the terrorists in Iraq… we do not send them to Syria – we kill them in Iraq.”

On August 30, the U.S. Air Force bombed the road ahead of the convoy of Syrian ISIS fighters and their family members, in an effort to prevent them from reinforcing ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq. The convoy is known to hold several hundred militants, but the presence of family members prevents the U.S. from directly striking the vehicles themselves.

On September 2, Iraqi police arrested an attempted suicide bomber and destroyed his explosives-rigged car west of Ramadi. No casualties occurred in the process of the arrest or detonation. ISIS still controls several towns in western Anbar, and launches occasional suicide attacks across the province.

On September 4, a spokesperson for the international coalition against ISIS said that they would “never allow” the ISIS convoy released by Hezbollah to reach Iraq. Coalition planes have been working to track and slow the buses on their journey through Syria, but their options are limited by the presence of civilian family members in the vehicles.

On September 4, reports surfaced that some of the ISIS fighters released by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters several days prior may have reached the towns of Rawa and Qa’im in western Anbar, where they are expected to reinforce beleaguered militants there and fight the Iraqi forces when they eventually move to retake the towns. According to locals in those towns, as well as Iraqi politicians and journalists familiar with the issue, several hundred ISIS fighters arrived to Rawa and Ana on September 1, after using a series of back roads to evade U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes. Rawa and Ana, along with Qa’im, are the last three border towns in Anbar that are still fully under ISIS control. The Iraqi Air Force (IAF) has been attacking militant positions there for months as they prepare to eventually move into the towns. The addition of several hundred new fighters would significantly increase the difficulty of those operations.

On September 5, Subhi al-Kubaisi, the chairman of the provincial council of Rutba, about 300 kilometers west of Ramadi, announced that their town had received 1200 displaced civilians from Qa’im, Rawa, and Ana, the three ISIS-held border towns in western Anbar. He said that the town receives dozens of displaced families a day, and that they are all being given food and clean water, although security concerns about ISIS infiltration remain.

On September 7, an unidentified aircraft bombed buildings in central Ana, approximately 210 kilometers west of Ramadi, wounding seven civilians and destroying several houses, according to an anonymous source within the city. The source did not say whether ISIS militants were being targeted, but the IAF has been actively targeting ISIS positions in Ana in preparation for military operations to retake the town. Last month, the head of Ana’s district council demanded that airstrikes on his town be stopped until after the town was retaken by the Iraqi military, saying that the strikes appeared to be targeting civilians with no ISIS affiliation.

IED Incidents and Resulting Casualties

09/07/17Jisr Diyala, Southeast Baghdad02
09/07/17Sadr al-Yusufiyah, Southwest of Baghdad10
05/03/17Nahrawan, East of Baghdad02
09/07/17Road near Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad14
09/06/17Abu Ghraib, West of Baghdad
09/05/17Rabia, Northwest of Mosul07
09/05/17Tarmia, North of Baghdad02
09/05/17Abu Gharbia, West of Baghdad04
09/05/17Near Tabaj, 69 km northeast of Baquba03
09/05/17Albu Aitha, South of Baghdad01
09/05/17Fadhil al-Badiri, South of Najaf00
09/04/17Duwanim, West of Baghdad06
09/03/17Hor Rajab 01
09/02/17Power plant east of Samarra713
09/02/17Bowie, Southeast of Baghdad03


Please note: some geographic locations represented are approximations and this map may not represent all incidents.

Derived from firsthand accounts and Iraq-based Arabic and Kurdish news sources, the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor is a free publication of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center.

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