Fighters claiming allegiance to DAESH stormed two energy facilities in northern Iraq, killing five workers and shutting down a major oil pumping station, security and oil sources said.
At least four gunmen with hand grenades broke through the external door of the AB2 gas compressor station Sunday afternoon. The facility is approximately 15 kilometres northwest of Kirkuk. At least two guards were left in critical condition.
They proceeded to shoot dead four employees in a control room inside and planted explosives charges, at least five of which went off, security sources said.
Forces from the elite counter-terrorism service then stormed the facility, regaining complete control and freeing 15 other employees who had hidden in a separate room. It was not yet clear if the attackers had been killed or if they had fled.
The attackers could not be found and are believed to have escaped to launch a second attack on the Bai Hassan oil station, 25 km further northwest, the sources said.
There they launched a similar attack, one detonating his explosive vest at an external gate to allow the others to enter. Once inside the facility, two more assailants set off their explosive vests, destroying an oil storage tank.
The fourth assailant was later killed in clashes with security forces. An oil engineer was also killed and six policemen were wounded, security sources said.
The attack forced the suspension of activity at an oil station which had been pumping 55,000 barrels per day to the northern Kurdish region, oil sources said.
It was not clear when operations at the facilities would return to normal. Kurdish peshmerga forces, which have controlled Kirkuk and surrounding areas for two years, were searching nearby villages for fighters suspected of involvement in the attacks.
Amaq news agency, which supports the DAESH, said in a message distributed online that DAESH fighters had stormed the Bai Hassan facility, but made no mention of the earlier attack.
The group has previously targeted oil facilities in the area with explosives, repeatedly targeting oil wells at Khabbaz oilfield southwest of Kirkuk.
Also on Sunday, Human Rights Watch called on the Iraqi military to insure that no civilians are harmed in the fight against DAESH forces.
In particular, the New York-based group pointed to the impending fight for Mosul, a city largely under the control of the so-called Islamic State group. Though Baghdad has not announced a specific start date for that endeavour, HRW has called on the government not to partner with Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shia Muslim militias from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
"Iraqi commanders shouldn't risk exposing Mosul civilians to serious harm by militias with a record of recent abuse," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, echoing the positions of many Western diplomats and aid workers who are mobilising humanitarian aid for the population.
Shia militias and Peshmerga fighters have been key forces in Iraq's campaign to retake the third of the country seized by DAESH in 2014 after army and police units collapsed, but they have also been accused of abuses against civilians, allegations they deny or dismiss as isolated cases.
Their participation in the battle for Mosul, a predominately Sunni Arab city which also has diverse ethnic and sectarian communities, risks confrontation with the local population.
Militia leaders say the security forces have not been rebuilt enough to retake the city by themselves in a battle that could see fierce street fighting.
Mosul officials, displaced to other parts of the country, say alleged abuses in Falluja in May, alongside those in previous battles, vindicate their calls to keep the militias out of the northern city.
Several militias faced allegations in Falluja from the provincial governor, which they denied, that they executed 49 Sunni men and detained more than 600 others. The authorities opened an investigation and made several arrests at the time.