Twelve people were killed in two separate attacks which Iraqi officials blamed on ISIS extremists, government and police officials said on Tuesday.
The group has intensified attacks on security forces and civilians in northern and western Iraq using dust storms as cover, preventing attempts by the Iraqi army and air force to track the terrorists from the air.
The first attack occurred in the late afternoon on Monday, when “ISIS gangs targeted innocent farmers by shooting at them in Taza Khurmatu district in the province of Kirkuk,” said Iraq’s Security Media Cell.
Six farmers were killed in that attack and farmlands were set on fire, the ISMC said. The farmers were harvesting wheat.
An operation was launched to search for the terrorists, it said.
Shortly after the attack, extremists attacked Al Islah village in the Jalawla district of Diyala province with mortars and sniper fire, a police officer said.
“Then, they took over a house where they holed up during clashes with security forces and villagers,” he said.
He said six civilians, including two men, were killed. Seven other civilians and one soldier were wounded.
More were feared dead in both incidents.
A military delegation arrived at Jalawla on Tuesday to investigate the attack.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the Kirkuk attack, saying it killed five Shiites who were working in the fields and set fire to five vehicles. It said its fighters clashed with a unit from the federal police and destroyed one of their vehicles.
On Tuesday, the Interior Ministry's Federal Police were deployed in the agricultural areas outside Kirkuk to protect farmers as they harvested their crops.
There was no claim of responsibility for the other attack, but it bore the hallmark of militants who have conducted similar attacks in the same area.
In recent years, the group has torched fields in Iraq and Syria, boasting about the destruction in its propaganda.
In 2019, more than 200 fires burnt down 5,000 hectares of crops in northern Iraq, with some blamed on ISIS and others on land disputes.
After three years of drought, which has cut cultivatable areas by half, Iraq is closely monitoring its wheat harvest this year.
Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the “heinous and cowardly” attacks, saying they were “villainous attempts to strike at stability and security”.
The attacks also “remind us of the danger of terrorism that seeks to catch its breath and exploit loopholes”, Mr Salih said.
He called for “closing the ranks and supporting security forces to eradicate terrorism and foil its malicious schemes”.
Iraq announced victory against ISIS in late 2017, backed by paramilitary forces and the US-led air coalition, after three years of fighting.
ISIS cells continue hit-and-run attacks, particularly in vast desert regions of northern and western Iraq near the border with Syria.
Since April, Iraq has suffered at least 10 heavy sandstorms that reduced visibility to zero in some areas, sending thousands with breathing difficulties to hospitals and disrupting flights.
Videos shared by security forces on social media show soldiers struggling to cope with heavy storms in the vast expanses of desert where they are sent, mainly near the borders with Syria.
In some areas, authorities put on hold military operations or aerial support during dust storms.
Under that cover, ISIS launched attacks against security forces and civilians in remote areas. In some cases, the extremists moved to the main motorway that links Iraq to Jordan in Anbar province, setting up check points or attacking fuel supplies.
ISIS has “maintained the ability to launch attacks at a steady rate in Iraq, including hit-and-run operations, ambushes and roadside bombs”, a UN report said in January.
“Exploiting the porous border” between Iraq and Syria, the group still has “between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters across both countries, where it is forming cells and training operatives to launch attacks”.
Cells “remain active in desert and rural territories, and the group uses urban areas to expand its clandestine networks”, it said.
In April, two soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber during a counter-terrorism operation in an area to the north of the capital, Baghdad.