KIRKUK, IRAQ/WASHINGTON - Thousands of Iraqi and Kurdish forces are preparing for a looming battle to dislodge Islamic State (IS) fighters from Hawija, a predominantly Sunni town that is the militant group's largest stronghold in Iraq after Mosul.
“We are fighting to save humanity, and with efforts of our heroes, we will enter and liberate Hawija people,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Friday during a visit to Kirkuk, about 30 miles east of Hawija.
Home to about 115,000 people, Hawija came under the grip of IS in June 2014. The town is considered "the small Mosul" due to its strategic significance for the stability of oil-rich Kirkuk province.
IS has used Hawija as a staging ground to launch several attacks on nearby towns and oil plants, severely damaging the energy infrastructure of the area.
“They fire rockets from the town almost every day,” Kurdish military commander Muhammad Qadir said. “Removing them means we eliminate the threat on the stability of Kirkuk.”
Hawija came under siege last month when Iraqi forces recaptured the Sharqat district to the north cutting off IS militants’ only route to Mosul.
Backed by U.S.-led coalition aerial power, Iraqi and Kurdish forces say they expect to push toward the center of the town by year’s end. They expect stiff IS resistance.
Three divisions and 11 brigades of the Iraqi army, along with the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Forces, are expected to launch the attack from northwest and south while Kurdish peshmerga reinforcements come from the northwest.
“We are well-prepared,” Qadir said.
IS fighters are reportedly preparing the attack by digging trenches and planting booby traps around the town.
Kurdish forces on the frontline say that for the past four weeks IS militants and their vehicles could be seen from a distance, with fighters seen digging trenches and planting large concrete barriers.
“We use drones and binoculars to monitor their movements, but they usually block our sight by burning a lot of tires,” Kurdish Colonel Tariq Ahmed said.
About 10 IS fighters guard the construction tools used to dig the trenches, Ahmed said.
“We suspect that IS will fill these trenches with bombs and explosives,” he added.
Earlier this month, Iraqi and coalition planes dropped hundreds of leaflets over the town urging civilians to avoid IS positions and leave for safer locations ahead of the operation, commander Shwan Hama Xarib said.
Following the warning, hundreds of residents began fleeing to Iraq’s Kurdish region.
“The residents are flooding out of the town now because they are well aware that coalition airstrikes will begin soon,” Xarib told VOA. “IS has built bases everywhere in the town and civilians know they can’t be safe if they stay.”