Iraqi forces are gearing up to launch a military operation against ISIS remnants outside of Tuz Khurmatu city to reclaim areas not yet controlled by Baghdad, with an official adding the movements would be coordinated with Peshmerga.
“Areas around Tuz Khurmatu city, used as hotbed by terrorists and the areas from where Tuz Khurmatu comes under mortar shells, will be liberated and controlled and the rule of law restored,” Lt. Col. Abdulamir al-Mohammadawi, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Rapid Response Force (RRF), told Rudaw.
Mohammadawi added they will “coordinate with the brave Peshmerga in this regard.”
The multi-ethnic Tuz Khurmatu district is in Saladin province, with the city about 155 kilometers south of the Kurdistan Region’s capital city of Erbil. Tuz is a disputed or Kurdistani area claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad.
“We are under the command of the Joint Operations Command which is comprised of the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army, Rapid Response, Federal Police and Counter-Terrorism forces,” noted Mohammadawi. “The decision of the Peshmerga involvement lies with the commander of the Joint Operations Command.”
A local Kurdish official believes without the Peshmerga, the Iraqi armed forces cannot launch any raid in the area. He said no joint talks or deal have occurred.
“Until this moment, no agreement has been reached or discussions held on this matter,” Hassan Baram, a PUK official now displaced from Tuz Khurmatu, told Rudaw. “They cannot attack the area without the Peshmerga since the area lies in between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army. “
Kurdish Peshmerga have monitored nearby areas and warned of an ISIS presence that grew after many ISIS fighters fled during the fight for Mosul in 2017.
“And in my opinion it is not easy to attack the area as ISIS has stationed itself there for nearly five to six months now and is prepared for fighting,” he noted. “That is why I am sure it cannot be done without the Peshmerga.”
Tuz Khurmatu has been shelled, causing casualties among Hashd al-Shaabi fighters and civilians. The Iraqi forces have responded by shelling mountainous areas including a number of Kurdish villages nearby the city.
Tens of thousands of locals remain displaced because of the hostilities.
Also on Sunday, Samir Mohammed Ismail, the commander of the RRF met with Lays Hamid Khalaf, the acting mayor of Tuz Khurmatu and other local officials to discuss the return of IDPs and security concerns.
“It was discussed that arms must only be in the hands of the state,” Mohammadawi said, stressing that IDPs have to be allowed to return.
He said that in the meeting they discussed the presence of armed groups being prohibited, and “the only official force is the Rapid Response force.”
Iraqi Prime Minister and Commander-In-Chief of Iraq’s armed forces, Haider al-Abadi, ordered the RRF into the troubled city and district.
The PUK official, Baram, said on Sunday that the authorized Iraqi forces forcibly disarmed groups in the city and ousted the Hashd al-Shaabi.
“But the strange thing is that, they [the RRF] came fully armed. They have not come only to secure the city as they have brought with them many tanks, armor, and heavy weaponry, and also were deployed to the Kurdish neighborhoods,” he said.
He went on to claim that the RRF have taken shelters in civilian houses.
“According to our information, they have done some looting in Rizgari neighborhood,” said Baram.
There was no immediate statement from Hashd’s official media.
Kawa Mala Parwez, the head of Kurdish security (Asayesh) who is also displaced from his home in Tuz, has claimed that the Iraqis entered Kurdish neighborhoods, looted houses, arrested Kurds and disarmed Turkmen and Arabs.
The spokesperson of the RRF, Mohammadawi, had told Rudaw they are there “to preserve security and impose law.”
Tuz Khurmatu, home to Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs, came fully under Iraqi and Hashd control in October when the Peshmerga pulled out of the disputed areas. Kurdish people and their homes and buildings there were targeted with violent attacks, arson, and looting.
Thousands of Kurds from the city are sheltering in the Kurdistan Region.
Mohammadawi has urged all IDPs to return home.
The Iraqi parliament has voted to establish a multi-ethnic committee to investigate events in Tuz Khurmatu after international organizations like Amnesty International and also Rudaw’s own reporting found that Kurdish homes had been damaged after the October 2017 incursions.