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Seeking Clues to ISIS Strategy in Corpses and Cellphones Left in Kirkuk

KIRKUK, Iraq — Eighty-four bodies of Islamic State fighters were piled high at the Kirkuk hospital morgue, as the pathologists went through the gruesome work of gathering intelligence on the group’s sudden counterattack on the city.

One by one, the corpses were removed from black body bags so fingerprints and DNA could be preserved. If no relatives come forward to claim the remains, the bodies are to be burned.

A local counterterrorism unit, meanwhile, is mining the fighters’ cellphones for data and trying to find any residents who might have been on the calls. They are trying to divine whether the city is still at risk of infiltration or another assault.

“What they did to us inside Kirkuk was by far the worst we have ever seen,” said Polad Talabani, the commander of the Kurdish counterterrorism force, which was summoned from nearby Sulaimaniya to help put down the assault that drove deep into the city’s heart before dawn on Oct. 21.

Beyond the militants, 116 people were killed in the fighting, including 43 police officers, 33 pesh merga and other security force personnel, and 21 civilians, among them several Iranian technicians who worked at a nearby power plant, officials said. Around 265 people were wounded.

Most eyes have been on nearby Mosul, where Iraqi and Kurdish forces have been moving to squeeze the Islamic State-held city from the north, east and south.

Map | Kirkuk, Iraq

But the militants’ sudden attack on Kirkuk, an oil-rich region that has been under the Kurds’ control for the past two years, provides a window into the Islamic State’s strategy of striking in other places even as it is under siege in Mosul.

As reconstructed in interviews here and in nearby Sulaimaniya, the Islamic State attack was ambitious and carefully planned. From the start, the fighters moved to occupy Kirkuk’s government center while trapping the city’s emergency police forces in their base so they would be powerless to intervene.

The American-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq may have missed a chance to head off the attack by deferring a plan to take Hawija, a nearby Islamic State enclave. Hawija appears to have been the jumping-off point for some of the militants involved in the Kirkuk assault.

Officials said that there had been some intelligence reports earlier in the week that the government center might come under attack. But what ended up unfolding went far beyond what officials had expected, said the governor of Kirkuk Province, Najmiddin Karim, who trained as a neurosurgeon in the United States and has dual Iraqi and American citizenship.

About 100 Islamic State fighters had moved from towns like Hawija to an area near Daquq, where they were met early on Oct. 21 by seven trucks, apparently operated by drivers familiar with Kirkuk.

The fighters raced to several tactical spots in the city, including the tall buildings outside the emergency police headquarters, where they used snipers to bottle up the Kirkuk security forces, officials said. Still other militants took up positions in the Snowbar Hotel, which gave them a commanding view of the heavily secured government areas.

The governor called Lahur Talabani, the head of a Kurdish intelligence service, who with his brother Polad, the counterterrorism force officer, rushed to Kirkuk from Sulaimaniya.

But the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, appeared to have anticipated that reinforcements would come from Sulaimaniya and had ambushes planned, firing rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons at the relief force and prompting it to take a more circuitous route, officials said. The Islamic State also began to run suicide car bomb attacks at front-line pesh merga forces, in an apparent effort to pin down those Kurdish troops so they could not be used for the defense of Kirkuk.

Not all of the Islamic State attackers were Sunni Arabs from Iraq. The attackers apparently included some Kurds and some foreign fighters from Yemen, Polad Talabani said.

A number of Islamic State fighters killed in Kirkuk were equipped with GPS locaters.

The broader political goal appeared to be to spur a rebellion by Sunni Arabs who had sought refuge in Kirkuk from the war, and to take over the government center, even if the gain was temporary.

Emphasizing the propaganda goal of the assault, a video was posted on YouTube that purported to show people in Mosul celebrating the victories Islamic State fighters had achieved in Kirkuk.

Battling back, the Kurdish counterterrorism forces used helicopters to fire on the sniper positions the Islamic State had established in tall buildings along key routes. The streets also filled with local volunteers, and some of the Kurdish residents began firing with abandon at Islamic State militants, sometimes posing danger to themselves and their neighbors, officials said.

Fourteen female students at a Christian school suddenly became trapped when ISIS fighters burst into their dormitory near the Snowbar Hotel. Abu Durayd, a local church official, said he had urged the students to silence their cellphones and hide themselves as best they could, which meant in their darkened rooms under their beds, as the militants entered the building.

“We were terrified,” said one 22-year-old student, who gave her first name, Marlin. As she struggled to stifle any sounds, an Islamic State fighter raided the kitchen and then sat on her bed to wolf down the food, she said. “We didn’t take a deep breath. All we could do is pray.”

After the fighters fled or exploded their suicide belts on lower floors, the church worker helped lead the students to safety.

Iraqi civilians at a funeral in Daquq were not as lucky. More than a dozen were killed and wounded in an airstrike that appeared to have been mistakenly carried out by the Iraqi military, officials said.

“It was like an electric shock for us,” said Mona, 28, a Daquq resident whose head was swathed in bandages. “I tried to crawl a little, and then they put me in a car. We did not know what to do.”

One senior Islamic State commander, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Islam, was reported captured. He is well known to security officials, who say he was also a veteran of attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of ISIS, against Kurdish forces in earlier battles.

Kirkuk officials said they were pleased that they had fended off the attack, though the cost was high.

After the attack, tensions between Arabs and Kurds, long an issue in the city, intensified. United Nations officials said that hundreds of Arab families who were taking shelter in Kirkuk had been forced to leave afterward, and that Kurdish officials believed that terrorists might be hiding among them. Mr. Najmiddin insisted the reports were false.

But the governor said that the Sunni grievances that the Islamic State had sought to exploit and nurture had not been addressed.

“If there is no solution to the political problems, they will just go back and become Al Qaeda, or Ansar al-Sunna or Naqshbandi,” the governor said of the post-Islamic State future, referring to terrorist groups. “I don’t think it is going to end. There has to be political reconciliation, and it has not happened.”

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