KIRKUK, Iraq—In June 2014, it took only several hundred Islamic State fighters to conquer Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul, with two entire Iraqi army divisions fleeing without much of a fight and many residents welcoming the invaders.
Last Friday, just as Iraqi, Kurdish and coalition troops were inching closer to Mosul to retake it, Islamic State launched a similar surprise attack on another major Iraqi city, Kirkuk. As the news of the assault spread, Islamic State authorities in Mosul staged street celebrations to salute the imminent addition of Kirkuk to their caliphate.
That attack, however, quickly ended in failure. The main reason is that Sunni Arabs, many of whom once viewed Islamic State as a liberator from Shiite or Kurdish oppression, have grown increasingly disgusted by the militant group.
After all, it is Iraq’s Sunni Arab community that has paid the highest toll in the war unleashed by Islamic State, with their cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah lying in ruins and millions displaced from their homes. This draining support for Islamic State, as demonstrated by its quick defeat in Kirkuk, gives hope that the militant group will struggle to stage a comeback after it loses Mosul and control of other remaining areas in Iraq.
“Everyone was happy about ISIS entering the city because the [Iraqi] army was so bad, putting pressure on people, arresting an entire street whenever a car bomb went off,” said Nofal Hammadi, the governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul. “But now that ISIS showed who they really are—the complete opposite of what people expect from Islam—nobody wants them anymore.”
A multiethnic oil-industry city with a prewar population of some 900,000 Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, Kirkuk has long been a political flashpoint in Iraq. Control of the city is disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country. Islamic State’s blitzkrieg in the summer of 2014 further altered Kirkuk’s delicate demographic balance, flooding the city with 600,000 Sunni Arabs and Turkmen displaced by the conflict.
It is among these Sunni Arabs and Turkmen—many of whom have long resented the Kurdish political and security domination of Kirkuk—that Islamic State expected to receive a groundswell of support as more than 100 of its fighters fanned out through the city in the predawn hours of Friday. It was by leveraging such ethnic and sectarian tensions that Islamic State was able to rise to prominence in both Syria and Iraq, positioning itself as a defender of Sunni rights.
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When Hassan Abdullah, the watchman of the Snowbar Hotel that faces the Kirkuk provincial government compound, spotted dozens of militants converging outside at around 3 a.m. last Friday, he locked the front door and ran to hide upstairs.
“They had long hair, long beards and were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’ It was clear to me they were Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
Instead of using the Snowbar’s higher roof as a firing position, the militants went atop the nearby Dar al-Salam Hotel, raining down rocket-propelled grenades and bullets on troops defending the government compound below. Simultaneous attacks were launched on the city’s power station and bases belonging to Kurdish and Iraqi security forces.
In the Arab areas of Kirkuk, Islamic State militants also went to the mosques, using the pre-dawn call to prayer to urge local residents to rally behind them.
“Their plan of attack was very sophisticated, and if our response hadn’t been strong, we would have ended up like Mosul now,” said Brig. Gen. Serhad Qader, the Kirkuk police chief. “If the Arab population had helped them, we wouldn’t have been able to regain control quickly.”
“Daesh expected the population to rise with them, and that just didn’t happen,” he said.
Indeed, the only Kirkuk civilians who came out to the streets with arms after the start of Islamic State’s attack were those, mostly from the Kurdish areas, who tried to help security forces defending the city.
Sheikh Borhan al-Aasi, chief of the Arab al-Obaidi tribe, whose members live in Kirkuk and the nearby Islamic State-held town of Hawija, looked on from his nearby home with dread as the militants assaulted the government compound.
“If the same kind of attack happened in 2014, Kirkuk might have fallen. People at the time didn’t understand what is Daesh,” said Mr. al-Aasi, one of the city’s most prominent Sunni Arab community leaders.
“But now they do realize that Daesh is the biggest threat to Iraq. I’m proud that all the sons of Kirkuk were united in this fight against Daesh despite the differences that we have between our communities.”
By the time the street battles died down on Tuesday, more than 80 Islamic State militants were dead and several captured, including one believed to be a cousin of Saddam Hussein, according to Kirkuk officials. The clashes also claimed the lives of 64 Kurdish and Iraqi security personnel and 34 civilians.
Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, who was inside the government compound when it came under attack Friday, said he wasn’t surprised when a population often suspected of harboring pro-Islamic State sympathies—internally displaced Iraqi Sunni Arabs—showed no support for the group during the city’s fateful days.
“Most of these IDPs have suffered from Daesh themselves, and this is why they’re here and not in their homes,” said Gov. Karim, adding that Islamic State fighters were “caught or killed by us because nobody was sheltering them.”
“Nobody was rising up and welcoming them, and that’s something really new and good.”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org