Seeking Clues to ISIS Strategy in Corpses and Cellphones Left in Kirkuk

BY KALAHAN DENG

Kurdish security forces gathered around the body of an Islamic State militant in Kirkuk, Iraq, last weekend. The Islamic State attacked Kirkuk while trying to defend territory in Mosu

KIRKUK, Iraq — Eighty-four bodies of Islamic State fighters were piled high at the Kirkuk hospital morgue, as the pathologists went through the gruesome work of gathering intelligence on the group’s sudden counterattack on the city.

One by one, the corpses were removed from black body bags so fingerprints and DNA could be preserved. If no relatives come forward to claim the remains, the bodies are to be burned.

A local counterterrorism unit, meanwhile, is mining the fighters’ cellphones for data and trying to find any residents who might have been on the calls. They are trying to divine whether the city is still at risk of infiltration or another assault.

“What they did to us inside Kirkuk was by far the worst we have ever seen,” said Polad Talabani, the commander of the Kurdish counterterrorism force, which was summoned from nearby Sulaimaniya to help put down the assault that drove deep into the city’s heart before dawn on Oct. 21.

Beyond the militants, 116 people were killed in the fighting, including 43 police officers, 33 pesh merga and other security force personnel, and 21 civilians, among them several Iranian technicians who worked at a nearby power plant, officials said. Around 265 people were wounded.

Most eyes have been on nearby Mosul, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been moving to squeeze the Islamic State-held city from the north, east and south.l

But the militants’ sudden attack on Kirkuk, an oil-rich region that has been under the Kurds’ control for the past two years, provides a window into the Islamic State’s strategy of striking in other places even as it is under siege in Mosul.

As reconstructed in interviews here and in nearby Sulaimaniya, the Islamic State attack was ambitious and carefully planned. From the start, the fighters moved to occupy Kirkuk’s government center while trapping the city’s emergency police forces in their base so they would be powerless to intervene.

The American-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq may have missed a chance to head off the attack by deferring a plan to take Hawija, a nearby Islamic State enclave. Hawija appears to have been the jumping-off point for some of the militants involved in the Kirkuk assault.

Officials said that there had been some intelligence reports earlier in the week that the government center might come under attack. But what ended up unfolding went far beyond what officials had expected, said the governor of Kirkuk Province, Najmiddin Karim, who trained as a neurosurgeon in the United States and has dual Iraqi and American citizenship.

About 100 Islamic State fighters had moved from towns like Hawija to an area near Daquq, where they were met early on Oct. 21 by seven trucks, apparently operated by drivers familiar with Kirkuk.

The fighters raced to several tactical spots in the city, including the tall buildings outside the emergency police headquarters, where they used snipers to bottle up the Kirkuk security forces, officials said. Still other militants took up positions in the Snowbar Hotel, which gave them a commanding view of the heavily secured government areas.