At least 100 fighters sneaked into Kirkuk in the early hours of Friday with machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, suicide vests and a message: “Islamic State has taken over”.
The message blared out from several mosque loudspeakers while the militants went on a rampage.
By the time they had blasted their way across the city in a brazen and complex attack, 99 civilians and members of the security forces were dead and 63 of their own were in the morgue, according to Iraqi security officials.
Most worrisome re Kirkuk attacks is that it shows ISIS has retained & is already switching to being guerrilla force. https://t.co/BoEVWPZ9Yf
— Ali Ahmadi (@AliR_Ahmadi1) October 24, 2016
The scale of the operation – the largest of several by IS to divert an advance on their stronghold in Mosul – shows how tough the battle for Mosul may become and points to a continued ability of the militant group to undermine security across the country even if its northern bastion falls.
Accounts gathered by Reuters from residents, police, security and intelligence officials suggest it was carried out by forces that were highly trained, well-prepared and – alarmingly for the government – supported from inside Kirkuk.
Like the IS attacks on Paris last year, the operation appeared aimed at spreading chaos and fear rather than seizing territory.
Although the heaviest fighting was over by Friday night, clashes continued for two days and officials are still searching for IS units in the city.
Kirkuk, 100 km southeast of Mosul, has been controlled by Kurdish forces since the Iraqi army retreated from advancing IS forces in 2014.
The operation was not improvised: a video found on a Samsung Galaxy phone on the body of a fighter shows footage of targets around the city filmed before the attack.
At the time the clashes were spreading out across Kirkuk, four IS militants wearing suicide vests also attacked a power station in the town of Dibis, 30 km away.
At least 11 people were killed, among them three Iranian engineers who had been working at the plant.
– Babak Dehghanpisheh and Michael Georgy