Smoke rises near Mosul as Iraqi forces advance towards the city on Oct. 20.(Photo: AP)
Suspected Islamic State fighters stormed an Iranian-run power plant and police stations in the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk on Friday in an apparent counter-attack as Iraqi forces advanced on militant-held Mosul about 100 miles to the northwest.
Iraqi media said at least 13 workers, including four Iranians, were killed in the pre-dawn assault by suicide bombers armed with rifles and that a curfew was imposed on the city claimed by both Iraq's government and the country’s autonomous Kurdish region.
Some of the militants may still be at large. Television footage aired by Kurdish broadcasters Rudaw and Kurdistan24 showed gun battles and black smoke rising over parts of Kirkuk. Claims by the Islamic State's Aamaq news agency that its fighters were behind the attack could not immediately be verified.
Abu Hamza woke up Friday morning to the sound of gunfire outside his brother's home in the center of Kirkuk. Immediately his family of 12 piled into one of the bedrooms. They would hide there for the entire day, waiting for the fighting to stop.
"I can't really look because there is a sniper out there," said Hamza, speaking via Facebook messenger as sounds of gunfire could be heard in the background. "But there are Islamic State militants (here) and the fight is continuous."
Hamza, 32, from Mosul, hasn't been able to get back there for more than a year, even though his wife remains inside the besieged city – he hasn't spoken to her in 10 days. He worries about his family there, but now he is even more worried about the situation for his family here in this room. "Nothing like this happened before, it is quite scary," he said of the fighting outside. "My family is shocked and my son is quite frightened – he is asking what is going on, as his heart is beating so rapidly."
As his seven-year-old son whimpers in the background while gunfire rings out in bursts outside their bedroom window, Hamza said, "Do not be scared, darling."
He said the attack by militants took everyone by surprise.
"There is an unprecedented expansion of the Islamic State in Kirkuk. Peshmerga forces and Iraqi police are fighting the Islamic State now – now, there are Kurdish fighters by our home. I feel afraid to look through the window. The security forces might ask me, 'what are you looking at?'"
"I feel quite frustrated," he added. "Life has become desperate."
The raid came as Iraqi forces in coalition with Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, American advisers and various ethnic minority paramilitary units waged a large-scale offensive to recapture Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, since Monday.
As of late Thursday, Iraq's military said its push to drive the Islamic State out of Mosul had reached as far as the town of Bartella, about 9 miles from its outskirts.
Iraq's prime minister struck an upbeat tone this week, saying the operation to retake Mosul from Islamic State fighters was moving ahead faster than anticipated.
Contributing: Valerie Plesch