ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – Fears of the Islamic State (IS) resurfacing in northern Iraq are on the rise as the death toll of a Friday night attack in Salahuddin continues to rise.
The attack took place late on Friday as gunmen opened fire on a gathering of civilians in the Farahiya district, north of Balad and south of Tikrit. Witnesses told Kurdistan 24 that four people were killed and ten others wounded.
The assailants used automatic weapons and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) to carry out the attack, some 90 kilometers north of Baghdad. Security forces clashed with the gunmen before they withdrew from the area.
On Saturday, Deputy Minister of Peshmerga, Sarbast Lazgin warned that IS militants were still at large in the town of Hawija, north of Tikrit and west of Kirkuk. The city was liberated two months ago by Iraqi security forces.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Lazgin claimed there was “precise information obtained that shows [the jihadist group] is still in Iraq,” and that it has dozens of “hideouts from which to launch their attacks.”
Lazgin suggested the quick withdrawing of Iraqi forces following the liberation of Hawija and the lack of security forces in the area allow militants to build up an insurgency.
“During the offensive to liberate the district [Hawija] there was not enough military opposition by the Iraqi forces against Daesh [IS],” Lazgin said. “Hawija is yet to be cleared of them,” he added.
According to Iraqi newspaper al-Mada, an Iraqi security source warned of the possible fall of Hawija to remnants of IS.
Earlier in December, the US-led coalition warned that militants were moving freely in the desert areas bordering Iraq controlled by regime forces and would be adapting insurgency tactics in the country.
Kurdish officials also cautioned that ongoing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad would contribute to the reemergence of IS or similar groups in Iraq.
Since the military takeover of Kirkuk Province by Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias on Oct. 16, the security situation has drastically deteriorated in disputed areas.
Local officials have claimed IS cells have returned to the town of Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk.
Over the past few days, Hawija has witnessed several assassinations of Hashd al-Shaabi officers and Iraqi officials according to security sources.
The presence of IS sleeper cells are one of the toughest security challenges facing newly-liberated areas and hinder the return of displaced people who fled to the Kurdistan Region and other parts of Iraq following the emergence of the extremist group in 2014.
Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed the fight against IS had gone from a military battle to one of intelligence and information, calling on Iraqis to remain vigilant and cautious.