Islamic State (ISIS) militants still pose a threat to Iraq’s disputed territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, a Peshmerga commander warned Friday, a day after twin blasts struck Kirkuk city center.
ISIS was declared territorially defeated in Iraq in December 2017, but its sleeper cells and armed remnants continue to launch insurgent attacks, exploiting security gaps between Iraqi and Peshmerga lines.
The jihadist group seized vast areas of Iraq and Syria in summer 2014, including Iraq’s second city of Mosul, where ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate five years ago.
The group was finally dislodged in summer 2017 by Iraqi security forces and ferocious US-led coalition bombing.
ISIS launched several surprise attacks on Kirkuk during the conflict, but was repeatedly repelled by the Peshmerga.
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga Commander Wasta Rasul told Rudaw Radio on Friday the jihadist group still poses a grave threat to Kirkuk and warned of another potential conflict in the area.
“ISIS has not really been uprooted. The group has only lost the territory it ruled. It has completely regrouped and is stronger than before,” Rasul warned.
“ISIS has sleeper cells in Sunni neighborhoods of Kirkuk too. That is why anything is possible to happen to Kirkuk.”
Militants have launched several recent attacks across the territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad. The towns of Rashad and Hawija west of Kirkuk in particular have seen an uptick in insurgent activity.
Posting via messaging app Telegram, the ISIS propaganda outlet Nashirnews said militants had targeted Iraqi federal police in the subdistrict of Rashad and in the city of Tikrit on the Kirkuk road in the last 48 hours.
On Thursday, two improvised explosive devices were detonated on two public buses in Kirkuk city center, killing one and injuring 17. The provincial council blamed the attack on ISIS remnants.
ISIS has also claimed responsibility for a rash of crop fires on the outskirts of Kirkuk city.
Kirkuk is a disputed territory claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution was supposed to have resolved the issue of disputed territories by 2007, but little progress has been made in the implementation of the article which calls for a census and referendum in these areas to establish whether residents want to remain part of federal Iraq or join the Kurdistan Region.
On October 16, 2017, the Iraqi Army and Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitias launched an offensive, forcing the Peshmerga out of Kirkuk.
Kurds and Arabs in Iraq have been locked in disputes over land ownership since Arabization policies were set in place by Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein. Kurds have accused Iraqi authorities in the disputed territories of continuing these policies.