Iraqi forces shut down access both in and out of Kirkuk Monday as fighting with Kurdish Peshemerga forces grew worse.
Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) moved into Kirkuk in the early hours of Monday and continue to fight Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers in the contested oil city, in addition to occupying Kirkuk airport.
“We were defending the city but eventually we had no choice but to retreat,” said Jabar Kareem, 37, a Peshmerga soldier heading north out of Kirkuk on Monday afternoon, his eyelashes dusty from the crowded road. “They are fighting with advanced weaponry.”
By evening, PMU forces had moved to the northern part of the city and mortars fell as far as seven kilometers beyond Kirkuk. Peshmerga soldiers manning the last point outside the city fully controlled by Kurdish authorities told us they were also taking sniper fire and that families that wanted to flee are now trapped inside the city.
After about five minutes with the soldiers, they ordered us away, saying they could see two PMU vehicles rapidly approaching their position.
PMUs, locally known as Hashd Shaaby, are primarily a Shia fighting force formalized under Baghdad as they fought along other Iraqi and coalition forces during the battle with Islamic State militants. Allied against IS, Kurdish Peshmerga and PMU fighters have been facing off for days around Kirkuk, with both sides massing soldiers and heavy weaponry, and building berms and other defensive lines.
Meanwhile Kurdish civilians are pulling out personal weapons and flocking towards Kirkuk as volunteers for the Peshmerga fighters. “When we are attacked, we are all Peshmerga,” says Renas Hassan, 27, normally a taxi driver but now armed and on his way to Kirkuk. “We will not let our city go.”
PMU forces are believed to be in the process of capturing Kirkuk oil fields, which could cut the road off from Irbil, the Kurdistan Region’s capital.
Kirkuk has long been claimed as both part of the Kurdistan Region in the north and part of Arab Iraq. In late September, the Kurdistan Region voted overwhelmingly in support of independence in a referendum, despite objections from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the international community.
Baghdad responded by grounding international flights to and from the region and imposing other sanctions. Irbil calls the sanctions and the battle that began today an attack on Kurdistan.
'Federal authority '
But Baghdad says by taking Kirkuk, which was controlled militarily by Irbil and administered by both capitals, it is simply asserting its federal authority and blames the Kurdish leadership for the conflict.
In a statement posted online Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi calls the idea of Kurdish independence “the establishment of a state on an ethnic and racial basis” and says the referendum was a violation of Iraqi law and the will of the international community.