KIRKUK, Kurdistan Region — Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has given the green light for the anticipated attack on ISIS militants in the Sunni heartland of Hawija, senior Shiite commanders told Rudaw Wednesday.
“At the order of the Commander of the Armed Forces we have prepared the assault in coordination with the Peshmerga troops. We have all the preparations needed for this operation,” said Colonel Zaki Muhammad, the local commander of Shiite militia Hashd al-Shaabi.
According to Muhammad there will be 5 Shiite brigades joining the operation supported by government airstrikes and Peshmerga ground troops.
With just over 400,000 inhabitants, predominantly Sunni Arabs, Hawija and its surrounding localities have been at the center of multiple insurgencies since 2004.
The attack to retake the city, captured by ISIS in June 2014, has been repeatedly postponed to avoid triggering sectarian tensions in Sunni lands.
When the Iraqi army withdrew from the area in 2014, tribal fighters affiliated with ISIS took charge of the city.
Kurdish police forces are wary that the insurgency will likely continue in Hawija due to the long-going ethnic tensions in the area with a distrustful Sunni population which has in the past accused Iraq’s Shiite-led government of arbitrary detentions and discrimination.
“ISIS has been there for more than two years and even before that al-Qaeda was operating in this area, so we don’t think the insurgency is something that will end immediately after liberating the city,” said Kirkuk Police Chief Sarhad Qadir.
Iraqi forces have pushed back the militants in several areas near Hawija, which is regarded a strategic city at the crossroads between Kirkuk and Nineveh province.
Hawija's northern borders and its four city gates have been sieged by Peshmerga forces since August last year.
Kurdish security officials have said the liberation of Hawija is crucial for the security of Kirkuk city which suffered from several deadly bombings over the past year claimed by ISIS militants.
Kurdish sources say that Peshmerga forces are able to drive out the militants from the city in collaboration with the Iraqi army and coalition air support.
“Our troops will manage to enter the city from the northern gates and are basically waiting for orders from the Kurdistan Region,” said Peshmerga Major General Hama Regir.