ISIS Targets Kurdish Forces in Iraq, Seizes Oil Station

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Men walk past the front of a building damaged in an explosion the day before at a market in Baghdad on January 31, 2015. AFP/Sabah Arar

Published Saturday, January 31, 2015

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants struck at Kurdish forces southwest of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Friday, while bombs in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Samarra and Ramadi killed at least 27 people.

The jihadist group, which has declared an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria under its control, has often battled Iraqi security forces and pro-government militias further south and west, but attacks in and around Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk have been less frequent.

Police in Kirkuk province said the militants launched mortars and attacked positions of Kurdish fighters in four districts.

Militants later detonated a car bomb at a hotel in Kirkuk city center and clashed with peshmerga forces.

A peshmerga officer told Reuters his forces had recaptured the district of Mariam Bek but said clashes were ongoing in Tal al-Ward, Maktab Khalid and Mullah Abdullah.

Kurdish military sources said the peshmerga had repelled dawn attacks by ISIS at different points along a more than 1,000 kilometer frontline, including Khazer, west of Erbil, and Makhmur, further south.

"Maybe they are afraid the fight for Mosul has started so they are trying to show they can operate close to Erbil or Kirkuk," Roj Nuri Shaways, Iraq's deputy prime minister and a peshmerga commander, told Reuters.

Senior Kurdish official Hemin Hawrami said on Twitter 45 militants and seven Kurds were killed around Kirkuk. Medical sources said senior commander Brigadier Sherko Fatih was among the dead.

At least seven other Kurdish fighters were killed by a suicide bomb at a checkpoint near the eastern town of Jalawla, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kirkuk, peshmerga and medical sources said.

Oil facilities targeted

ISIS insurgents seized a small crude oil station near Kirkuk where 15 employees were working, security and oil officials said on Saturday.

Two officials from the state-run North Oil Co confirmed the militants seized a crude oil separation unit in Khabbaz and said 15 oil workers were missing after the company lost contact with them.

"We received a call from one of the workers saying dozens of Daesh fighters were surrounding the facility and asking workers to leave the premises. We lost contact and now the workers might be taken hostage," an engineer from the North Oil Co told Reuters, using the Arabic term for ISIS.

Khabbaz is a small oilfield 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Kirkuk with a maximum production capacity of 15,000 barrels per day. It was producing around 10,000 bpd before the attack.

The jihadist movement seized at least four small oilfields when it overran large areas of northern Iraq last summer, and began selling crude oil and gasoline to finance their operations.

Oil rose above $49 a barrel on Friday because of the violence in the oil-rich region.

The violence came as US Central Command announced on Friday that a US-led coalition airstrike had killed an ISIS chemical weapons expert last week near Mosul.

Abu Malik, who was killed January 24, had been a chemical weapons engineer during the rule of Saddam Hussein and then affiliated himself with al-Qaeda Iraq in 2005, Central Command said in the statement. When he joined ISIS, it gave the insurgent force a chemical weapons capability, it added.

Police sources said a former member of parliament and head of the Anizza tribe, and at least five others were killed when an oil tanker was rammed into his reception hall in al-Nukhaib, 400 kilometers southwest of Ramadi.

ISIS has sought to assassinate politicians who fought al-Qaeda in 2006-07 during the American occupation of Iraq and then ran for office.

Security sources said at least 18 people were killed by two bombs in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharqi shopping district on Friday.

Three civilians were later killed and at least 10 wounded in northwestern Baghdad when mortars landed in residential neighborhoods, police and medics said.

Further north in the holy city of Samarra, suicide bombers targeted a security checkpoint in the city centre, police said, killing three members of the police and pro-government militias.

Police and militias later clashed on Samarra's western outskirts following another explosion there.

Efficiency of US-led coalition put into question

More than 800 peshmerga have been killed in combat since ISIS overran their defenses in northern Iraq last summer, which led to the United States forming an international coalition to launch airstrikes against the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds have now regained most of the ground they lost, but commanders complain they remain ill-equipped compared with ISIS militants, who plundered Iraqi arms depots when they overran Mosul in June.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that the US-led coalition against ISIS was inadequate and said US policy would at best contain the resilient and carefully structured group.

Outgoing US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview on Friday the United States might eventually need to send non-combat ground troops to Iraq to help turn back ISIS forces.

Hagel, who announced his resignation under pressure in November, told CNN all options must be considered in Iraq, including sending troops for non-combat roles such as gathering intelligence and locating ISIS targets.

"I think it may require a forward deployment of some of our troops ...," he told CNN. "I would say we're not there yet. Whether we get there or not, I don't know."

Hagel's comments echoed testimony by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Congress last fall when he said US troops might have to take a larger role on the ground in Iraq.

Such a deployment would be in addition to the 4,500 U.S. troops already committed to training and advising roles in Iraq.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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