With U.S.-backed Iraqi forces close to ending the Islamic State group's grip on Mosul, security forces in neighboring Iraqi provinces are increasingly concerned about extremists moving into their areas.
Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahuddin provinces have recently witnessed a surge in IS activities, and local security forces fear possible terror attacks by IS militants fleeing Mosul.
“IS terrorists have raised their black flags in many villages and plains across the provincial borders,” said Lieutenant Colonel Faruq Ahmed, head of the security department in Tuz Khurmatu, 200 kilometers from Mosul. “Some of those areas have not had many IS fighters since 2014.”
IS controlled large swaths of land in the three provinces when it swept across northern and western Iraq in 2014.
After Mosul, recapturing Hawija
With the exception of the city of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, IS later lost most of that territory to Kurdish and Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, along with Iran-backed Shi'ite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces. Iraqi officials say recapturing Hawija will be their next goal after the Mosul offensive is completed.
Intelligence reports tell of IS movements across the borders of all three provinces, and Ahmed said security forces in Tuz Khurmatu are on high alert for possible “imminent” attacks.
Villagers living in the outskirts of Sulaiman Bek, a town in eastern Salahuddin province, said they saw 10 trucks full of IS fighters crossing into Qara Tapa town, north of Diyala.
Kurdish forces, the Iraqi army and PMF “are closely coordinating together to respond to any IS surprise attacks,” Ahmed said.
IS hit-and-run attacks
A Kurdish commander, Colonel Luqman Muhammad, leads Peshmerga forces in the triangle where the borders of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahuddin meet. He told VOA that IS militants have been moving into the three provinces in small groups — 10 to a dozen fighters — to avoid being targeted by coalition airstrikes.
IS fighters have been staging hit-and-run attacks against Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi army units and Shi'ite militias.
Peshmerga forces foiled a major IS attempt last week to control the strategic border triangle, Muhammad said, thanks to support missions flown by warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition.
“The planes hit them about three times and forced them to disperse,” he said. “We killed two of them and seized a lot of weapons after two hours of confrontation.”
Militants pressure villagers
Muhammad said increased IS activity could continue for some time after the extremists are driven out of Mosul. Islamic State fighters have managed to establish secret cells in the region, he said, by appealing to disenfranchised Sunni Arabs.
Ever since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the three provinces near Mosul have been in a state of flux. Their populations are a complex of Sunnis, Kurds and Shi'ites. Sunni leaders tell VOA their community feels increasingly marginalized by Kurdish and Shi'ite groups that have territorial ambitions in the region.
Khairuallah Abdullah, a Sunni activist from Kirkuk, told VOA that IS fighters are pressuring Sunni villagers to support their insurgent attacks on Shi'ite and Kurdish forces.
“IS uses money to buy the loyalty of villagers who have just returned to their homes,” he said. “Those who refuse to pledge loyalty, especially the village headmen, face torture and death.”