KIRKUK, IRAQI KURDISTAN —
The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong.
Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, has fabulous oil wealth. It is an ethnically divided city. For years, Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen factions fought each other. Then, insurgents including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - or ISIL - unleased their terror.
In June, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga troops, reputed to be some of the toughest fighters in this region, moved into Kirkuk to restore stability, and to protect the oil beneath it.
A monument in Kirkuk, a well-head surrounded by swords, is highly symbolic of both the value of the province’s oil, as well as the fight to control it.
Peshmerga member Mohamed Swani explains that Kirkuk’s oil now belongs to Kurds, not Baghdad, which objects to the takeover.
“Now, this place is Kurdistan. The oil is for Kurdistan. We must keep the oil, and the defense of the land, for all the places in Kurdistan.”
This reporter went out with the Peshmerga on a security patrol, to see how they keep the city and province safe, as well as the oil the Kurds want for their hoped-for independent state.
We left the military compound and pulled out into the street, our vehicle packed with troops, guns always at the ready.
The ride can be wild and bumpy, but the message put out by every Peshmerga patrol is clear - order will be kept, and those who challenge it face the barrels of many guns.
Since these Peshmerga patrols began in June, Kirkuk has enjoyed more peace than at any time in the past decade. While this patrol covers the city, other Peshmerga units have been out in the province driving out ISIL and other insurgents.
Some Iraqi government troops dropped their guns and ran when ISIL swept into Iraq, but the Peshmerga did the opposite - they engaged ISIL, known as Dash - and drove them out. Peshmerga Kamal Mohamed Mustapha explained.
“You know, Dash came - to try to control Kirkuk. But when we heard about Dash trying to do that, we came over to Kirkuk, and took Kirkuk from them. We kicked them out of Kirkuk now,” said Mustapha.
The Kirkuk oil field and its pipeline, and oil patch, Bai Hassan, are under Kurdish control. Their pipelines are now rerouted to send the oil north and on to Turkey, to the port of Ceyhan.
Iraq’s central government has angrily reacted to the KRG’s takeover of Kirkuk and these oil fields. But the Kurds have made it clear that they will not give them back to Baghdad. This oil, as Kamal Mohamed Mustapha says, guarantees the viability of an independent Kurdistan.
“This oil is the future of Kurdistan, so if there is no oil, there is no future,” says Mustapha.
The Peshmerga say that if Baghdad wants to take Kirkuk back by force, they are ready to fight.