Beginning on the night of 24 February, according to Security Media Cell, Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) units supported by CF aircraft launched an air assault operation affecting several areas along the Khanuka Mountains, located south of Shirqat in northern Salah ad Din province. Reports from various security sources cited intermittent clashes between ISF and insurgents through the afternoon of 25 February. During clashes that morning, reports indicate 1-2 CTS members were killed and at least four others were wounded. Between 8-9 insurgents were killed in conjunction with a CF airstrike along the mountains near Mashak village.
The Security Media Cell issued a more outlandish account, claiming 39 IS militants were killed including an IS Sharia official and an IS military official following clashes lasting 10 hours. The operation also resulted in the destruction of two staging areas, with one used as a compound to store large amounts of weapons and ammunition. The other staging area was used as a financial center with computers and documents containing information about IS fighters and supporters. The Iraqi military acknowledged that four CTS members were wounded, but refrained from acknowledging the fatalities.
Significant security success despite questionably high casualty claims:
A similar CTS operation was previously conducted in southern Kirkuk province between 23-24 February, with 18 IS members allegedly killed. Intelligence gained from that operation may have supported the latest operation. As stated, the operation on the Khanuka Mountains resulted in the highest number of IS casualties inflicted during a 24-hour period since some point prior to 2019, possibly dating back to the period during the mainstay of major counter-IS operations in 2017. However, it is assessed to be unlikely that 39 insurgents were indeed killed. High casualty figures are commonly based on crude inflated estimates pertaining to numbers of insurgents believed to have been sheltered in tunnel systems and other hideouts targeted by airstrikes. More distinct confirmation is seldom seen as part of efforts to promote the effectiveness of security forces and degrade IS morale.
That said, the deaths of at least eight insurgents including two leaders, the plausible deaths of several others, and the destruction of two major staging areas, certainly represented a significant security success during the operation on the Khanuka Mountains. In conjunction intelligence exploitation and follow-on targeting, this operation will undoubtedly pose a disruptive impact on IS operations supported from this historically active safe haven. The impact on IS activity levels in adjacent environments of Salah ad Din and Kirkuk provinces will be important to gauge in hindsight. Considerations for the near-term include IS intent to conduct headlining retaliatory attacks, particularly against vulnerable targets in historically active environments.
Another significant component of the latest operation involved the Security Media Cell openly acknowledging CF involvement and support. To recall, the 3 January assassination of Qassem Soleimani was followed by significant reductions in partnered CF operations amongst a breakdown in relationships. CF officially resumed partnered operations with ISF against IS, but US officials acknowledged that the tempo of operations remained limited thereafter. The Iraqi military was forced to distance themselves from CF as recently exemplified by the launch of Operation Heroes of Iraq on 12 February. Intended to succeed Operation Will of Victory in 2019, the Joint Operations Command stressed that CF were excluded from this entirely Iraqi operation.
For further analysis and discussion please see our full report.