Kirkuk: Iraqi forces in fierce clashes with Islamic State
A day after the shock attack on the Kurdish-controlled city, jihadist snipers and suspected suicide bombers were still at large, prompting Baghdad to send reinforcements. Photograph: (AFP)
Security forces battled for a second day on Saturday with Islamic State gunmen who infiltrated Kirkuk in a brazen raid that rattled Iraq as it ramped up an offensive to retake Mosul.
A day after the shock attack on the Kurdish-controlled city, jihadist snipers and suspected suicide bombers were still at large, prompting Baghdad to send reinforcements.
Special counter-terrorism and intelligence units were hunting down some of the dozens of IS fighters who stormed public buildings in the early hours of Friday.
"We have 46 dead and 133 wounded, most of them members of the security services, as result of the clashes with Daesh (IS)," an interior ministry brigadier general told AFP.
The toll was confirmed by a source at the Kirkuk health directorate, which called for blood donations to assist with the emergency.
The brigadier general said at least 25 jihadist attackers had been killed so far and several others wounded, including a Libyan believed to be among the raid's leaders.
The large-scale "inghimasi" attack, a term describing jihadist operations in which gunmen, often wearing suicide vests, intend to sow chaos and fight to the death rather than achieve any military goal, caught Kirkuk off guard.
The large city, which lies in an oil-producing region some 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad, woke up on Friday to find jihadists roaming the streets of several neighbourhoods.
They used mosque loudspeakers to broadcast praise of their self-proclaimed "caliphate", which has been shrinking steadily since last year and is looking closer than ever to collapse.
Distraction from Mosul
One attacker captured by the Kurdish security services on Friday claimed that the Kirkuk raid was planned by IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a diversion from the offensive on Mosul.
"Today's attack was one of caliph Baghdadi's plans to demonstrate that the Islamic State is remaining and expanding and reduce the pressure on the Mosul front," he said, according to an AFP reporter who saw his initial interrogation.
A Kirkuk-based television journalist was shot dead by an IS sniper on Friday and the city remained under curfew on Saturday as the security forces battled jihadists holed up in several buildings.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced late Friday that he was sending reinforcements to Kirkuk but there was no sign of any major impact on operations around Mosul.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter arrived in Iraq on Saturday to review the offensive, which his country and around 60 other nations support.
Mosul is much the most populous city in the "caliphate" Baghdadi declared in June 2014 and the operation to recapture it is Iraq's largest in years.
Its loss would deal a huge blow to IS and could mark the end of its days as a land-holding force in Iraq.
With 3,000 to 4,500 men facing tens of thousands of Iraqi forces backed by massive US-led air power, the outcome of the battle is in little doubt.
But jihadists have been launching dozens of suicide car bombs against advancing forces, slowing their progress and inflicting casualties in the process.
On Saturday, Iraqi federal forces moved into Qaraqosh, which lies just east of Mosul and was Iraq's largest Christian town before its population fled the jihadists in 2014, the joint operations command said.
Kurdish forces were also leading a major push northeast of Mosul but complained that air support from the US-led coalition was insufficient and leaving them exposed.
In his meetings in Baghdad on Saturday, the US defence secretary was expected to attempt to convince the government to lift its opposition to the participation of Turkish forces, who have a base north of Mosul.
Launched on Monday, the offensive is still in its early stages and is likely to involve a siege before elite forces enter the city and engage in street fighting with die-hard jihadists.
A French government source told AFP that entry into the city itself was still a month away.
A key concern is the presence in Mosul of up to 1.2 million civilians, who are trapped and unable to leave until forces move closer and safe corridors are opened.
According to residents contacted by AFP, living conditions are deteriorating by the day, with some food supplies running low and IS paranoia of informants higher than ever.
The number of civilians fleeing the fighting and the jihadists who have ruled them for two years was beginning to grow as Iraqi forces worked their way up the Tigris Valley.
Several thousand Iraqis displaced by this week's offensive have received assistance but aid groups fear hundreds of thousands could be forced to flee in the coming weeks.
With winter looming and relief organisations already stretched by the presence in the country of more than three million displaced people, the predicted exodus from Mosul would spark Iraq's worst humanitarian emergency in years.