IS launches new attacks in Kirkuk amid the COVID-19 emergency

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IS fighters use curfew and restrictions to target military assets. Operations are centred in the Kirkuk area. For Iraqi priest, jihadis carry out hit-and-run operations. The scope of violence is not comparable to the past. Although the situation is improving, focus remains on containing the outbreak.
Kirkuk (AsiaNews) – Despite its military defeat, the Islamic State (IS) group is still active in a number of areas of the Middle East, taking advantage of the emergency situation created by the novel coronavirus pandemic. This is especially the case in Iraq.

In April, local sources report that IS fighters or unknown groups carried out various operations and attacks in disputed areas in northern Iraq, in particular in and around Kirkuk, a city disputed by Iraq’s central government and the Kurds because of its rich oil reserves.

According to sources cited by al-Monitor, jihadi activities have increased since a curfew and the state of emergency were imposed on 17 March.

Some IS “sleeper cells” are reportedly behind attacks in Hawija, south-west of Kirkuk, a city notorious for IS beheadings of Kurdish soldiers. On 12 April, an IS sniper shot and killed a policeman at a checkpoint in Hawija; the next day IS ambushed some Iraqi soldiers.

Iraq’s Security Media Cell (SMC), part of the state security forces, announced on 20 April that it destroyed IS bombs in hideouts in Samarra. On the same day, the SMC announced that an unknown group had killed three Iraqi soldiers in Diyala. The following day, three more soldiers were wounded in another attack in the same city.

“There are still IS cells and fighters ready to strike in Iraq,” said Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, head of the Christian community in Karamles, a town in the Nineveh plain, northern Iraq.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he explained that “Usually, they (IS fighters) engage in hit-and-run attacks,” but “the scale and intensity of the violence are not comparable to the past.”

Although the situation “is not clear,” these “are limited operations” and should not lead to “a return of the Caliphate”.

Overall, the situation is “uncertain” and the emergency situation created by the novel coronavirus “has caused further confusion”. This “has certainly helped” jihadis “in their attacks”. “Other groups of dubious nature have joined them.”

The most critical situation “is south of Kirkuk where some cells are hiding in the desert”. From here they can launch “sudden attacks, like a few weeks ago against the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters).”

The clergyman rules out any “large-scale return of IS,” but the withdrawal of US soldiers from a base south of Kirkuk “may have encouraged jihadis”. In any event, “there is no widespread panic.”

Everyone, from the government down, is focused “on containing the coronavirus” and “mitigating its terrible effects on the economy and jobs, which could affect up to 40/50 per cent of Iraqis”.

In Mosul and Nineveh, fears of the pandemic seem to have diminished. Many areas in Iraqi Kurdistan are reopening because all the sick have recovered.

In Erbil the situation is improving. In Baghdad the central authorities have loosened restrictions; for example, by reducing the duration of the curfew.