Islamic State (IS) militants armed with assault rifles and explosives attacked targets in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk early on Friday, in an assault that appeared aimed at diverting Iraqi security forces from a massive offensive against the IS-held city of Mosul.
At least 13 workers, including four Iranians, were killed when IS militants stormed a power plant north of Kirkuk and then blew themselves up.
Multiple explosions meanwhile rocked the city and gun battles were ongoing, said witnesses in Kirkuk, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were concerned for their safety. Much of the fighting was centered on a government compound in the city. They said the streets were largely deserted out of fear of militant snipers.
IS said its fighters targeted the provincial headquarters. The claim was carried by the IS-run Aamaq news agency and could not immediately be verified.
Local Kurdish television channel Rudaw aired footage showing black smoke rising over the city as extended bursts of automatic gunfire rang out. It quoted Kirkuk governorate Najmadin Karim as saying that the militants had not seized any government buildings.
In the power plant attack, which took place in Dibis, a town north of Kirkuk, three IS suicide bombers entered the facility and took 13 workers hostage, said major Ahmed Kader Ali, the Dibis police chief.
The attackers asked to be taken to the Iranians who worked at the plant, and one of the workers took them to the Iranians before escaping. The militants then killed the Iranians and the other workers, and detonated their explosive vests when police arrived, Ali said.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi condemned the Kirkuk assault, which he said killed four Iranians and wounded three others, according to the official IRNA news agency. It was not immediately clear if Iranians were targeted in other attacks.
Kirkuk is some 170 kilometers from the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces have been waging a wide-scale offensive since Monday.
The oil-rich city is some 290 kilometers north of Baghdad and southeast of Mosul. It is claimed by both Iraq’s central government and the country’s Kurdish region. Kurdish forces assumed full control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, as Iraq’s army and police crumbled in the face of a lightning advance by IS.
Later Friday, Rudaw TV said all IS militants who took part in the Kirkuk attack had been killed except for two who were holed up in a newly built hotel, which was damaged in the attack and from where they were battling Kurdish forces.
Kirkuk police commander brigadier general Khattab Omer said clashes were still underway, without providing further details. There was no immediate word on casualties among civilians or Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, and the TV report could not immediately be confirmed.