At this moment, our beloved Kirkuk, an oil-rich city of nearly a million people, just a short drive from our Iraq office, is under attack by ISIS.
Reports say ISIS "sleeper units" attacked a police compound and a power station northwest of the city, in addition to several other small-scale attacks meant to create chaos and divert attention from the operation to liberate Mosul.
We've been in touch with friends and partners inside Kirkuk. Here is what we've learned so far...
- Early this morning, ISIS forces launched several surprise attacks in different parts of the city, with the main attack focused on a power plant. Our friends in the city are reporting repeated explosions, many of them suicide bombers and rocket attacks on the city.
- 12 civilians are confirmed killed in the attack so far, as well as 12 Iranians who were working in the power station and three officers killed at a checkpoint.
- The city is in lockdown. One friend and long-time partner in our humanitarian work told us, "The city is closed to all outsiders right now, and confrontations are very close to my house." This is the view from his roof...
- ISIS militants were spotted near a local university. Another long-time friend, a leader of Kirkuk's ancient Christian community, asked us to pray for a house full of university students—all girls—who "can see men in black with guns" from inside their dormitory.
This is a city we have spent countless hours in. We visit often, and we love these people. There are thousands of people in Kirkuk you've loved through lifesaving medical care, essential aid, and empowerment grants—you've invested in this place and no ISIS attack will stop us from going back and doing more.
Stay tuned. We'll continue to add updates as we get them from inside Kirkuk.
A lot of rumors are circulating ISIS has "captured half of the city." This seems to be a significant overstatement, as the militants have reportedly captured very few actual buildings in Kirkuk and seem more intent on causing chaos.
Kirkuk security forces have instituted a curfew and closed all routes in and out of the city—we are not currently able to enter. One friend visiting Baghdad texted us, saying, "My mother is in Kirkuk, and I want to go back. But I can't enter the city... I'm so nervous."
UPDATE #3 (10/21, 3:30 pm Iraq / 8:30 am EST)
Local news outlets and various security officials are now reporting the Kirkuk attack as being "contained." This is inaccurate, according to several of our friends and sources inside the city. Fighting has died down, but at this moment, small battles are ongoing across the city. This speaks to the larger problem security forces face inside Kirkuk: ISIS fighters rose up from within the city and can just as quickly melt back into it, making this an extremely difficult manhunt and making it very difficult for this attack to be finally, completely "contained."
UPDATE #4 (10/21, 4:25 pm Iraq / 9:25 am EST)
Unconfirmed reports suggest ISIS fighters posed as Iraqi police in order to launch their attack. There are also rumors—again, unconfirmed—of an attempted prison break in connection to the attack on Kirkuk.
UPDATE #5 (10/21, 4:51 pm Iraq / 9:51 am EST)
We spoke again with a Christian leader inside Kirkuk, who confirmed that at least one ISIS militant is still hiding security forces outside a university dorm. The women inside the dorm have reported the fighter several times, but no one has arrived to secure the area. Our Christian friend is deeply worried for the safety of everyone inside, as are we.
UPDATE #6 (10/21, 12:01 am Iraq / 5:01 pm EST)
The Iraqi prime minister has ordered additional troops to Kirkuk. An official with a Kurdish political party in Kirkuk says the situation is now calm. He claims the attackers came from Hawija, an ISIS-held town southwest of Kirkuk, but to our knowledge this has not been verified. We hope to have more updates from our friends and colleagues in Kirkuk in the morning.
UPDATE #7 (10/23, 9:15 pm Iraq / 2:15 pm EST)
New details have emerged about the 71 female university students who were trapped in their dorms during the ISIS attack on Kirkuk. To read more—and to see a video of their reunion with their families—click here.