WASHINGTON - Efforts by the Islamic State terror group to draw attention away from the Iraqi-led assault on the key northern city of Mosul are having little if any impact, according to U.S. defense and intelligence officials.
IS fighters started launching a series of counterattacks hundreds of kilometers away from the main battlefront Friday, carrying out attacks on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and in the town of Dibis.
More than 100 people, including security personnel, were killed in the Kirkuk attack, which Kurdish officials blamed on an IS sleeper cell. At least 14 people, including several Iranians, were killed in the Dibis attack.
Two days later, IS fighters attacked the town of Rutba, in Anbar province, forcing the Iraqi government to send reinforcements.
“This type of thing was absolutely expected,” a U.S. defense official told VOA when asked about the IS counterattacks. “It was accounted for in our planning.”
More, worse is expected
U.S. officials say more such attacks are only a matter of time.
“ISIL’s attack on Kirkuk reflects a battlefield tactic commonly employed by the group: relieving pressure on a key battlefront by striking elsewhere,” a U.S. counterterrorism official told VOA, using an acronym for the self-declared caliphate. “As ISIL sheds territory and resources, it relies on guerrilla-style attacks to divert focus on its dwindling safe havens.”
Defense officials are also bracing for a rise in so-called spectacular attacks, like suicide bombings in major cities in Iraq and elsewhere, as pressure mounts on IS forces in and around Mosul.
And while local IS commanders often have a degree of autonomy to launch attacks as they see fit, there is a sense that so far, attacks like the one on Kirkuk are being directed by the terror group’s senior military leaders.
Still, some see IS operations like Kirkuk, which involved 80 to 100 fighters on what was in many ways a suicide mission, as worrisome.
“They still have some degree of command and control in their area,” said Aki Peritz, a former CIA analyst. “They’ve been building all sorts of defenses over the last two years, waiting for this moment.”
Is the progress hyped?
Others are also worried that progress in the battle for Mosul has been overhyped and that IS will still be able to inflict damage across Iraq as the campaign plays out.
“The claim that things are going well, that’s a lot of posturing," said an aid worker in the region who asked not to be named because of security concerns. “The general sense is that they’re meeting with much stronger pushback than expected.”
U.S. officials believe the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces are ready, and that no matter what diversions IS has in store, the terror group’s last major stronghold in Iraq will fall.
“The focus remains on Mosul,” the official added. “They [IS] have not shaken that focus.”