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World & Nation

Islamic State is stunning its adversaries with the ferocity of its counterattacks

Iraqi villagers have fled Mosul with white flags on their trucks to indicate they’re not members of Islamic State.

Islamic State militants came early in the morning, riding atop trucks that lumbered into this northern Iraqi oil town.

Masked and bristling with weapons, they were inghimasis, fighters instructed to “immerse” themselves in the enemy’s ranks, shoot till the last bullet and then detonate an explosives vest with their dying breath. 

Hours before Friday’s attack, they had gathered for a solemn ceremony outside Kirkuk and vowed to do just that.  Islamic State posted video of the event on YouTube.

“We pledge to  God that we will immerse in the enemies of God,” several men shouted, repeating after a commander who exhorted them to enter Kirkuk and “not turn or run away until  God conquers through us, or we die.”

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They died, but not before they had executed a coordinated blitz into 10 neighborhoods of this key Iraqi city — an important oil and gas production zone — including several districts housing vital government and security headquarters.

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As part of the attack, the militants also seized control of a power station 19 miles north in the town of Dibis, and raided other outlying areas the group described as Kirkuk’s “first defensive lines.”

The attacks ultimately were pushed back, but they demonstrated an advanced level of training and discipline that belies any expectations that driving Islamic State out of northwestern Iraq will be either quick or painless.

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The  jihadis showed that they are well-equipped enough to force a standoff that lasted more than 24 hours and killed more than 99 civilians and security personnel.

The counterattack was launched in the midst of a major drive by Iraqi and Kurdish troops, aided by U.S. airstrikes, to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city of Mosul. Four days after the militant group’s counter-assault on Kirkuk, the fighters who led the operation were still being hunted Tuesday by thousands of government troops, Kirkuk  Gov.  Najmaldin Karim told the local Sumariyah TV network. 

The brazen operation started about 3:30 a.m. Friday, when a detachment of fighters arrived in a Kia pickup truck on a side street near the Hotel Snobar, which overlooks Kirkuk’s provincial headquarters building and a small park. 

Another attack had commenced almost simultaneously on the police directorate in a nearby neighborhood.

The fighters got out of the Kia and stormed the governorate building, shooting at a Humvee parked in front. They threw a grenade on a guard sleeping in a hut at the edge of the park, then shot him in the head. The guards at the gate ran for cover behind the blast walls as the jihadis hauled up a machine-gun and opened fire at the watchtower. 

The noise woke up Commissioner Abdul Jalil Fateh Allah, an officer with the Emergency Police. He and three others were stationed on top of the Snobar.

“They had planned for everything. They had scoped out the area, but they didn’t know about us,” he said. 

“We knew they wanted to bring down the Iraqi flag on the governorate building and raise the Daesh banner to say to the media that the province had fallen. We couldn’t let that happen.”

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It was the start of a gun battle that lasted well into the evening of the next day, according to security personnel and residents.

The policemen opened fire, scattering the militants. One ran to the front door of the Snobar Hotel. It was locked, so he called in two others to break it down. Fateh Allah took aim and fired, injuring two of them.

Inside the Snobar, Mahmoud Abdul Razzaq, the 30-year-old receptionist on duty that night, was hiding behind a column after hearing the gunfire. He saw the three militants approach and run away after being shot. 

“I then saw  20 of them or more pass into the side street,” he said. 

Iraqi police patrol Kirkuk after driving off a counterattack by Islamic State fighters.
Iraqi police patrol Kirkuk after driving off a counterattack by Islamic State fighters.
(Marwan Ibrahim / AFP/Getty Images )

Five of the fighters ran to an open-air car showroom adjacent to the Snobar that had armored SUVs on display. One of the jihadis kicked in the office door to look for the keys, said Mohammad Shaheen, a Bangladeshi worker who had hidden inside an office when he heard the gunfire. 

“I thought initially it was police or army, but then I saw the masks and knew they were Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Behind him were the remains of a Dodge sedan, with globules of melted plastic where its dashboard used to be; wire innards were all that was left of the tires.

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Muthafar Jalal, the brother of the showroom’s owner, gazed at an armored Toyota Land Cruiser that was also left behind. Large-caliber holes had penetrated the engine block. A powerful blow to the windshield had caused a bulge  — yet it had not shattered.

“If they had taken these cars, Kirkuk would have fallen,” Jalal said. “Imagine the damage they could have done and the attacks they could have withstood.”

At some point, Officer Fateh Allah and his colleagues each had fewer than 10 rounds of ammunition left, yet they managed to shepherd the hotel guests to the Snobar dining hall. A SWAT team didn’t get to the hotel until noon. 

Even after government reinforcements arrived, the militants showed no hesitation. 

They sniped at the policemen from a half-finished building down the street; others clambered up the fire escape on the side of the Snobar. Another wave had reached the roof of an adjacent building and threw a bomb, a gas grenade and two sticks of TNT at the police.

“We were lucky. The TNT sticks didn’t explode or we wouldn’t be here right now,” said police officer Munther Razooqi. Behind him was a pool of dried blood where one of his colleagues, SWAT operator Ihsaan Ali, had fallen after a sniper shot him through the head. 

“They were well trained. They were good fighters, and all in shape — no big bellies,” said Fateh Allah, smiling as he looked at a portly colleague. 

It was a view echoed by Wajdi Hassan, a former army general who manages a construction site where the fighters had holed up. He displayed a photo of the corpse of a militant with long black hair, congealed blood on his nose and lips.

“This one was top-notch. He went from building to building, shooting at the security services,” said Hassan. 

They also appeared to be well equipped. In the unfinished building where the jihadis had congregated were various syringes and medical supplies, and some of the militants appeared to have the kind of explosives used for car bombs.

At 1:30 p.m., 10 hours after the initial attack, a number of Islamic State fighters ran into the house of Najaati Mardan, a 69-year-old retired military officer. They demanded the keys to his new Land Cruiser. 

“I gave them the keys, and then they started loading three disks of explosives into it to booby trap it,” he said. “They left soon after and it was blown up.”

Even those fighters who were wounded fought to the last. 

When Monaly Najeeb and her six flatmates heard the initial explosions at 4 a.m. they hid in a bedroom closet. 

Twelve hours later, Imad Matti, their supervisor at the construction site where they live and work, informed them there would be an airstrike on the site and told them to relocate to a room farther  away and hide under the bed. 

“The Daesh fighters came in and sat on the bed. Two of them were injured,” Najeeb said, speaking later from the Iraqi city of Irbil, where she fled after the attack. 

Three and half hours later, some fighters left to continue the assault while the wounded stayed behind. One, who was hit in the stomach, went to the bathroom, cleaned himself up, and headed to another room along with his comrade, Najeeb said. 

“Mr. Matti called us. He had  sneaked with nine other policemen to an alley beside the house. He signaled to us with a cellphone light, and we came out, one by one,” she said. 

It had been more than 15 hours since they had first gone into hiding. 

“It was a miracle we waited so long. We were thirsty, cold, wanted to go to the bathroom … but divine strength helped us,” she said.

Later, she said, the wounded fighter detonated his vest. 

In the room, blood stains splattered the walls and chunks of human flesh could be seen in the door frame.

The rest of the fighters were simply gone.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

ALSO

Liberated civilians or militants in disguise? The challenge of freeing a village from Islamic State

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