The Islamic State has taken control of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, and other surrounding towns in an advance eastward into an area formerly held by the Peshmerga, the military force of the Kurdish Regional Government.
“Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the archbishop of the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP. Qaraqosh (or Bakhdida on the map) has a Chaldean Christian population estimated at 50,000.
The Islamic State advanced into the towns unopposed, according to reports. The Peshmerga, which is considered to be a well-organized and hardened force, withdrew from the towns rather than fighting the Islamic State. The Peshmerga have controlled towns and villages east of Mosul since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Islamic State’s eastward advance puts the terror group about 20 miles from Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP that the Islamic State’s advance has created a “a humanitarian disaster” and that more than 100,000 Christians have been forced to leave their homes. “The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down,” and more than 1,500 documents have been destroyed, he said.
The Islamic State previously issued an ultimatum to Christians in Mosul that they convert to Islam, pay a tax, or be killed. Thousands of Christian families fled Iraq’s second largest city after the Islamic State issued their directive. The Islamic State has also been destroying Christian, Jewish, and Muslim shrines, churches, and mosques in Mosul. Among the religious sites destroyed by the jihadist group are the tomb of Jonah and an accompanying mosque, and the tomb of George.
The Islamic State’s Ninewa Division released a statement on Twitter, claiming it had taken control of 17 towns, villages, and military bases in Ninewa [the list, translated by The Long War Journal, is below]. The Islamic State said it is in full control of the Mosul Dam.
The jihadist group also released a statement on its Twitter account noting that it “launched a ‘big invasion’ yesterday, Aug. 6, on locations of the ‘apostate Kurds and those loyal to them.'” The group said that a German suicide bomber known as Abu Osama al Almani launched a “truck bomb filled with 5 tons of explosive material on a Peshmerga brigade in the Ali Rash/al-Hamdaniya district: 20 people were killed and many were injured.” Another Libyan known as Mu’awiya Al-Libi killed “tens” of Peshmerga fighters in an attack on another Peshmerga unit in the same area. The jihadist group listed other attacks in Ninewa, and claimed to have captured “four Peshmerga soldiers, including a deputy officer.” The Islamic State’s claims could not be verified.
The Islamic State’s gains east of Mosul are part of a larger push by the group to consolidate its control over Ninewa province. Last weekend, the Islamic State took control of Sinjar, a town with a large Yazidi minority; Zumar; and two oil fields. The jihadist group also was reported to have seized control of the Mosul Dam, which generates power and controls floodwaters on the Tigris River. Kurdish officials denied that the Islamic State took the Mosul Dam, but today, reports have emerged that the dam is now under the jihadist group’s control.
The Islamic State’s advances in the north over the past week constitute the group’s first major gains after a blitzkrieg offensive launched on June 10 in conjunction with allied groups that put it in control of Mosul, Tikrit, and a number of cities and towns in Salahaddin, Ninewa, and Diyala provinces. That offensive stalled on the outskirts of Samarra, just north of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Islamic State controls most of Anbar province and much of northern Babil province. The fighting has largely stalemated as Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias, including many supported by Iran, have failed to regain lost ground but have held most areas under their control.
Across the border in Syria, the Islamic State has taken control of most of Deir al Zour province and has made gains in Homs province as well. Large areas of Raqqah, Hasakah, and Aleppo provinces are also under Islamic State control. Two weeks ago, the Islamic State overran a Syrian army artillery base in Hasakah and seized a large quantity of heavy weapons, including artillery pieces, a tank, and Grad rocket launchers, as well as stockpiles of RPGs, AK-47s, anti-tank rockets, and ammunition.
The Islamic State, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, declared the establishment of its caliphate on June 29, and appointed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim. Baghdadi appeared for the first time in public at a mosque in Mosul on July 4.
The declaration of the caliphate is controversial in jihadist circles and among Islamic State allies such as the Baathists and other insurgent groups in Iraq. Several al Qaeda affiliates as well as well-respected jihadist ideologues have denounced the Islamic State’s announcement as premature and said the group did not properly consult leading clerics and jihadist groups. Al Qaeda disowned the Islamic State in February after the group refused to follow Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders to reconcile with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
List of areas the Islamic State claims it controls after this week’s offensive in Ninewa, from its Aug. 7 statement on Twitter:
1. All of Sinjar municipality and the areas belonging to it.
2. All of Talkif municipality and the areas belonging to it.
3. All of al-Hamdaniya municipality and the areas belonging to it.
4. All of Makhmour municipality and the areas belonging to it.
5. Zammar township and all the villages belonging to it.
6. Rabee’ah township and all the villages belonging to it.
7. Bartala township and all the villages belonging to it.
8. Karam Lays township and all the villages belonging to it.
9. Al-Kweir township and all the villages belonging to it.
10. Wana township and all the villages belonging to it.
11. Large areas in Filfeel township.
12. Large areas of Ba’ashiqa township.
13. Some of the al-Shalalat areas in Mosul.
14. The Sada and Ba’wiza area of Mosul.
15. The oil-rich ‘Ayn Zalah area.
16. The strategic Mosul dam.
17. The large Tumarat base.