Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced on Thursday the start of the Hawija operation, with Iraqi Security Forces leading the fight to oust Islamic State fighters from the city.
In a statement, Abadi said: “We announce the launch of the first phase of the liberation of Hawija, in fulfilment of our pledge to our people to liberate all Iraqi territory and cleanse it from terrorist Daesh gangs.”
— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) September 21, 2017
ISIS captured Hawija, located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) south of Kirkuk, in June 2014. Col. Ryan Dillon said on Thursday that the Coalition believes between 800-1,500 ISIS fighters remain in Hawija, including foreign fighters. Previously the Coalition estimated fewer than 1,000 fighters were in the city.
In an emailed statement, the Norwegian Refugee Council told The Globe Post an estimated 60,000-85,000 people may flee Hawija and the surrounding areas.
“The biggest need for families inside Hawiga now is protection and safety away from the crossfire. We also know that civilians inside Hawiga have suffered a lack of food and water and medical care during the last couple of years under ISIS control,” the NRC said.
Families began arriving in Kirkuk this morning, and the NRC is assisting with shelter, food, and sanitation needs.
The Kurdish Peshmerga will not be participating in the operation, accordng to Rudaw news agency. Peshmerga secretary general Jubar Yawar told the news outlet that they will maintain the defense lines against ISIS but “will not allow any units of the Iraqi forces to cross the front lines of Peshmerga-controlled areas.”
In a press release, the U.S.-led Coalition spokesperson, Col. Ryan Dillon, said: “The rapid, recent success of the Iraqi Security Forces points to the ISF’s momentum in the campaign to destroy ISIS in Iraq. ISIS has never been capable of providing effective governance or services that benefited the people under its rule. Its defeat in Iraq further demonstrates ISIS is an organization in decline, whose leaders are no longer capable of effective military command and control.”
The Hawija offensive begins just four days before the Kurdish Regional Government is set to hold an independence referendum in the areas under its control, including the disputed city of Kirkuk.
On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would support an independent Kurdistan. So far, many of the would-be country’s other potential allies, including the U.S., have all opposed the referendum. Iraq maintains that the independence bid is unconstitutional.
Following weeks of negotiation and strong statements from all sides, KRG President Masoud Barzani said on Monday that he would consider postponing the vote if Kurdistan were given certain assurances, in which case he would hold a “celebration” on September 25 instead of the contentious vote.
Another Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk, Kamal Kirkuki, told Rudaw on Tuesday that some smaller operations may begin on Saturday, but the final assault on Hawija will not begin until after the referendum.
“We have fortified our bases more and the Hawija liberation operation will certainly be launched after referendum,” the outlet quoted Mr. Kirkuki as saying.
According to Mr. Rasoul, the offensive on the ISIS stronghold will be launched on six sides. He said the Hashd al-Shaabi Popular Mobilization Units will participate alongside the ISF.