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article imageKirkuk raid offers glimpse of post-caliphate IS: analysts

By Jean-Marc Mojon (AFP)     Oct 22, 2016 in World

The jihadist assault on the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is typical of the kind of attacks the Islamic State group is likely to carry out after its "caliphate" falls apart, analysts said.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi forces backed by a 60-nation US-led coalition and other powers are closing in on Mosul, the IS group's last stronghold in Iraq.

The "caliphate" that IS supremo Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed there in 2014 straddling Iraq and Syria has shrunk steadily, however, and the loss of Mosul could end the group's days as a land-holding force in Iraq.

With fewer fixed positions and no population to administer, the most violent and ambitious group in modern jihad could revert to the kind of insurgent attacks it used to conduct in its previous incarnations.

"I think it is what is to be expected as IS continues to lose territory, a switch back to traditional terrorism and insurgency," said David Witty, an analyst and former colonel in the US special forces.

IS has often responded to major offensives against its bastions in Iraq and Syria by opening new fronts to stretch enemy forces, retain the initiative and keep media attention away from its setbacks.

The "inghimasi" raid on Kirkuk, a term used to describe gunmen who usually wear explosive vests or expect to die at the end of their attack, sowed chaos in Kirkuk.

At least five suicide bombers targeted key government buildings, at least six policemen were killed in the ensuing clashes and dozens of residents were wounded.

The battle for Mosul
The battle for Mosul

- Impact on Mosul -

Besides grabbing headlines, the attack may compel the Kurdish forces -- a key component of the six-day-old Mosul offensive -- to take another look at their deployment.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced late Friday that he was sending reinforcements to Kirkuk, where a senior interior ministry officer said 46 people, mostly members of the security forces, had already been killed in the clashes.

Patrick Martin, Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said some elements of the Kurdish peshmerga may consider pulling some of their resources from the Mosul theatre.

"The PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) have primary responsibility for the defence of Kirkuk and are in particular concerned about long term control of the city and its oil fields," he said.

One of the Kirkuk attackers captured by Kurdish security forces on Friday claimed Baghdadi ordered the attack to demonstrate the "caliphate" would continue to "remain and expand".

Those two words were a key slogan of the "state" proclaimed in 2014 and were shouted by militants through mosque loudspeakers as they took over Kirkuk streets on Friday.

Yet the attack on Kirkuk is likely to serve few long-term military goals for IS, a sign it may no longer seek to hold territory and instead focus on spectacular terrorist attacks.

A member of the Iraqi Kurdish forces gets treatment after being injured during clashes with jihadist...
A member of the Iraqi Kurdish forces gets treatment after being injured during clashes with jihadist gunmen in the southern suburbs of the northern city Kirkuk on October 21, 2016
Marwan Ibrahim, AFP

A few fighters remained holed up in Kirkuk buildings Saturday but the initial fear that IS might seek to seize control of the city quickly receded.

- 'Harder to fight' -

"Daesh (IS) do fight to retain territory, but have been more inclined to fall back in recent months," said Colonel John Dorrian, the US spokesman of the coalition assisting Iraqi forces in the war against IS.

He said the group had lost many of its top leaders in recent months and been stripped of some of its sources of revenue, but he expected the jihadists to fight hard to keep Mosul.

Martin argued IS may have had Mosul in mind when attacking Kirkuk but had most likely already accepted the idea they would lose it.

"The Kirkuk attack was launched in response to ongoing and projected losses in Mosul, but ISIS (IS) has likely shifted its mindset away from physical control of terrain," he said.

"If ISIS can continue fielding attack capabilities like this in the future then ISIS will continue to pose security threats to the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga," he said.

Witty also said the Kirkuk attack was a taste of things to come, since the predicted retaking of Mosul by Iraqi forces could seal the fate of IS's caliphate, at least its Iraqi side.

"They (IS) will increasingly use terror attacks and go back to more of a pure insurgent and terrorist organisation in Iraq. In many ways, they are harder to fight then," Witty said.

"When they openly hold cities and terrain, it is much easier for the coalition and Iraqi Security Forces to destroy them than it is when they function as an insurgency."

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