Much has changed since ISIS rolled into Hawija in June 2014 as part of its conquest of parts of northern Iraq.
The battle to defeat ISIS in Hawija targeted one of the last pockets of ISIS in Iraq. After the defeat in Mosul and Tal Afar, ISIS was confined to a small pocket 100-km. long by 20-km. wide around the town of Hawija. The only other area occupied by ISIS is in western Iraq’s Anbar province on the border with Syria. The battle to take Hawija began along the Tigris River, west of the town. Iraqi security forces, including the Federal Police, 9th Armored Division, 16th Infantry Division, elite counterterrorism forces, and units of the Hashd al-Shaabi or Shia militias, all attacked ISIS from positions near Sharqat. With overwhelming force and tens of thousands of forces backed by armored vehicles and US-led coalition airpower, the Iraqis proceeded to devastate ISIS. In the three weeks leading up to the battle the coalition launched 52 air strikes to “shape the battlefield” so that whatever ordinance ISIS had would be destroyed.
Hawija town and the areas around it have been a hotbed of insurgency since the 2003 US-led invasion. Many Saddam Hussein era officers came from the pro-Ba’ath Sunni Arab communities in this area which is north of Saddam’s birthplace of Tikrit. Later jihadist groups put down roots in the town. It fell to ISIS easily in June 2014. One local, writing on the online magazine Niqash, recalls driving into Hawija after ISIS took over. “We saw the building that was formerly used by the Iraqi army’s 12th Division, a large sign now hangs over the main entrance reading ISIS-secret operations room.”
Although thousands of families fled ISIS, many hundreds of thousands remained in and around Hawija and Iraq’s security forces had to contend with the presence of civilians in their September offensive.
After a week of fighting the Iraqis succeeded in conquering the areas west and north of Hawija. On September 29 they began what they called “phase 2” of the operation, quickly reaching the town of Hawija itself and other towns such as Rashad to its south.
ISIS was able to muster forces up until its final demise in the town. On September 28 coalition air strikes destroyed 51 ISIS vehicles. However it seems that, as in the battle for Tal Afar, the morale and leadership of ISIS was severely degraded in the face of such overwhelming firepower.
Now that Hawija has fallen, the ISIS threat to northern Iraq has changed from one where it holds territory as a conventional armed force, to a terrorist insurgency.
Although the number of ISIS attacks has been limited, it still presents a threat.
In July ISIS fighters emerged from a “liberated” area near Qayarrah and killed two journalists and a policeman.
The quick defeat of ISIS in areas such as Hawija seems to indicate that many of its thousands of fighters have melted back into the civilian and rural tribal population they emerged from in 2014.
It leaves troubling questions, because many of the Yazidi women captured in 2014 and forced into slavery by ISIS have not been found in Tal Afar and Hawija. According to the Kurdish channel Rudaw, one Yazidi woman named Haifa Barakat was able to flee ISIS during the battle.
She told the interviewer that there were several other Yazidi slaves kept by ISIS in the town but she had not seen them for a time. “Hawija was terrible, there was no food or drink, people were afraid of ISIS,” she said.
Another issue after the battle of Hawija will be relations between the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga who now face each other west of Kirkuk. Before the liberation of Hawija the Iraqis and Kurdish forces shared ISIS as a common enemy.
However, the Kurdistan Regional Government independence referendum on September 25 has led to sanctions from Baghdad. So far these have included the closure of airports in the Kurdish region and restrictions on financial transfers.
But there is also the threat of violence in areas around Kirkuk which the Iraqi government claims should be under its authority and not the Kurds.
Another issue around Hawija and other liberation areas will include re-settling the hundreds of thousands who fled ISIS in these areas, rebuilding their towns and supplying basic services to them.
Although many rural areas were mostly unchanged over the last years and free from coalition bombing or battle, towns such as Hawija have been damaged and ISIS brutality has changed the landscape, targeting minorities and destroying infrastructure.