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Interview and report: ISIS ambushes Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) on Kirkuk-Makhmur road

Units of the 15th Brigade of the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) were ambushed while driving at night on March 6 from Tuz toward Mosul via Kirkuk and Dibs. The unit, sometimes called Quwat al-Shaheed al-Sadr (National Defence Brigades), lost six men with many wounded during the gunbattle that initially left them surrounded and in need of support. Wounded were taken to Qayarrah hospital. The attack began at 11:30pm according to sources we spoke to.

The attack is part of a growing ISIS presence in rural areas around Hawija that also exploits open spaces between Iraqi government checkpoints and Peshmergaa positions closer to Makhmur and Qara Chokh mountain. ISIS uses sympathetic villages and also caves and bed-down areas it has used in the past, including networks that date back to the Iraqi insurgency of 2004-2005. ISIS was defeated in this area during the Hawija offensive in the fall of 2016, but Iraqi security forces never fully gained control of many of the roads and villages at night.

The PMU was being transported in several buses when they were ambushed. This has led to criticism of the unit for driving on this road at night. The attack took place in an area not far from Dibs, a strategic crossroads south of Erbil on the road to Kirkuk. The area here was also attacked by ISIS during its 2014 offensive and was the headquarters of Kamal Kirkuki's Peshmerga until the October 2017 Referendum crises when the Peshmerga withdrew and Iraqi federal forces took over the area. As such the area is still adjacent to disputed regions that are claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The attack on the convoy is one of the most series in recent months but is also part of a growing pattern of attacks.

Peshmerga at the Black Tiger Base, north of the area where the ambush took place and under KRG control, showed off some ISIS VBIEDs during a tour of their base. One had space for 900 kg of TNT. These are the kinds of weapons ISIS manufactured when they had a territorial 'caliphate.' Today their weapons are more rudimentary, but their expertise still exists.

The Peshmerga said that when the two PMU buses were ambushed they offered assistance. They also offered to take the wounded by ambulance to Erbil. Instead the PMU chose to take the wounded to Qayarrah. Qayarrah was liberated from ISIS in the summer of 2016 and is the site of a military base (Q-West) and refurbished medical facilities. The Peshmerga gave the location of the attack as 4km from their base in a village called Kalashikhan. We could not located this village on the map.

The Peshmerga say that the Iraqi security forces had replaced some of the guards on nearby checkpoints in late February, ten days before the attack. They say the new guards were not familiar or as capable as the previous. They also say that more than 100 ISIS members are part of a large cell operation in and around the local villages.

These ISIS members have increased their numbers in recent weeks and months, bolstered by foreign fighters, according to the Peshmerga. Rumors indicate these include ISIS who fled Baghuz in Syria in the last few weeks. "Despite what [some politicians in] Iraq say, that they want the US to leave Iraq, they know that if they don't have US support, Iraq will be in major threat from ISIS as we see it growing here again," the Peshmerga officer says.

The presence of the PMU in the area is supposed to assist the Iraqi forces. The Coalition assisted with an airstrike after the ambush on March 6.

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