IRBIL (Iraq) • Gunmen from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked government buildings in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and a nearby power plant yesterday, briefly controlling the main police station in their first significant counter-attack since Iraqi forces launched an offensive for Mosul.
The Iraqi military said the situation was now "under control" and that three police stations and a political party headquarters had been attacked inside the city.
It is unclear how many were killed in Kirkuk, but at least 11 died in the attack on the power plant in the nearby village of Dibbis.
The Kirkuk attack came as Iraq's elite counterterrorism units advanced to within 10km of Mosul, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces have launched a large-scale offensive to retake the northern city, the biggest city controlled by ISIS and about 160km to the north-west.
The United Nations human rights office said yesterday ISIS militants have taken 550 families from villages around Mosul and are holding them close to ISIS locations in the Iraqi city, probably as human shields.
Army commanders and officials speculate that the attack on the oil-rich Kirkuk is an attempt to relieve pressure on Mosul's defenders as Iraqi forces reach the outskirts of the city.
"It's a desperate attempt to move the front to Kirkuk and give their people who are besieged in Mosul a chance to escape," said local lawmaker Ammar Kahiya.
"The militants attacked the provincial council building, but did not manage to control it. They managed to enter the police station, but had lost it by mid-morning."
The militants attacked the provincial council building, but did not manage to control it. They managed to enter the police station, but had lost it by mid-morning.
LOCAL LAWMAKER AMMAR KAHIYA
In the attack on an electricity station and a gas station in Dibbis, the militants targeted Iranian workers at the plant.
The Electricity Ministry said 11 workers were killed in total, including three Iranians. The attackers then detonated their explosive vests when police showed up.
Troops are closing in on Mosul after making some success in taking back some areas around the city.
The sprawling Qayyarah base, 56km south of Mosul, in north Iraq has become a hub for operations to retake Mosul from the militants, just months after its recapture from ISIS.
On Thursday, Iraqi forces retook Bartella, a mostly Christian town barely 15km east of Mosul and now one of the spots where anti-ISIS troops are closest to the city.
The same forces from the elite counterterrorism service were now expected to move on nearby Qaraqosh, once the largest Christian town in Iraq.
Further north, Iraqi and Kurdish forces opened a new front with a multiple-pronged assault on the town of Bashiqa.
Ankara has been in a row with Iraq over the presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp, as well as over who should take part in the offensive in the largely Sunni Muslim city of Mosul, once part of the Ottoman empire and still seen by Turkey as firmly within its sphere of influence.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE