KIRKUK, IRAQ - With Islamic State (IS) militants again trying to get a foothold near the strategic oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga commanders on Tuesday displayed heavily-fortified military equipment seized from IS during earlier battles.
A VOA reporter was shown six locally manufactured armored vehicles and a number of military bulldozers that Kurdish commanders say IS had used to excavate trenches in areas to the south of Kirkuk and fortify IS fighters.
The weapons were reportedly seized from IS during battles earlier this year, according to Kurdish military officials.
The armored vehicles were crucial in the advances IS made in their battles against the Kurds and before the U.S.-led Western coalition stepped up its bombing campaign against IS.
Ill-equipped and short on ammunition, the Kurdish forces struggled to defend their territory and push back IS fighters whose vehicles were equipped with two-layered bulletproof metal exteriors stuffed with cement.
The construction made it difficult for Kurdish Peshmerga forces to attack IS militants as they closed in on Kirkuk from the southern front in early 2015.
“They (Peshmerga) could not stop these vehicles with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” said Brigadier Wasta Rasul, a Kurdish commander in southern Kirkuk. “We had to get help from (U.S.-led) coalition warplanes to stop their advances toward Kirkuk.”
Without the help of the international coalition airpower in recent months, IS could have swept Kirkuk and marched toward Irbil, the capital of the autonomous northern region of Kurdistan, analysts say.
“Back then, they controlled about 90 percent of areas in southern Kirkuk,” Rasul said.
IS now controls only a few scattered parts of the area after having been driven out by Western coalition aerial attacks on behalf of the Iraqi government.
Kurdish officials told VOA that the seized vehicles and weapons taken from IS will be displayed at the main museum in the city of Sulaimani in Kurdish northern Iraq.
Despite the setbacks, IS is again planning to launch a new operation in the Kirkuk area, Kurdish commanders say.
“Daesh (IS) is preparing for a major attack,” Abdulla Bor, a Peshmerga commander in Doz Khormato in southern Kirkuk, told VOA. “They have deployed a large force to this area.”
IS militants clashed last week with al-Hashd al-Shaabi, a strong Shi'ite militia operating in the area.
“They now have more than 1,000 fighters in Hawija (about 40 km south of Kirkuk) alone,” said Kurdish commander Rasul.
U.S.-led coalition warplanes have been watching IS movements to stop any onslaught in the Kirkuk area, and Kurdish forces are preparing to attack IS in conjunction with coalition efforts, Kurdish officials say.