The independence dream of Iraq’s Kurds may be over. It was felled by a lightening advance by Iraqi counter-terror units, trained and equipped by the United States, and Shi’ite militias, trained and equipped by Iran, who seized the disputed city Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields after isolated skirmishes and a withdrawal order by Peshmerga commanders.
The Peshmerga commanders either had no stomach for a fight or had already entered into a secret deal with the central government in Baghdad to retreat.
Amid accusations of betrayal, Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, the Peshmerga commander of 70 Force, a key unit charged with the defense of Kirkuk’s southern approaches, said he had ordered his men to withdraw to protect their lives in the face of overwhelming forces.
“I bear all the responsibilities – in success and failure,” Mustafa told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw. He dismissed claims there was a prior deal by some Peshmerga commanders to allow the Iraqi army to enter the city “without a fight.”
In Washington, as the advance into Kirkuk unfolded, a U.S. defense spokesman told reporters Iraqi forces the United States is “monitoring movements of military vehicles and personnel in the vicinity of Kirkuk.” He added: “These movements of military vehicles so far have been coordinated movements, not attacks.” Col. Rob Manning added: “We are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire…and we believe this to have been an isolated incident,” he said of media reports of fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish fighters.
In Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, rival Kurdish factions blamed each other for the loss of Kirkuk and surrounding oilfields, holding out the prospect of Kurd-on-Kurd retaliation. In Kirkuk, there were some incidents of local Kurds angry with the withdrawal firing at retreating Peshmerga.
The Kurdish Peshmerga and forces loyal to Baghdad, the latter consisting of the Iraqi army, counter-terror forces and Shi’ite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Outside Iraq most people think of the Peshmerga as a single force but it is in fact largely split and controlled separately by rival Kurdish parties, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, the party of Kurdistan’s president, Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which owes allegiance to the Talabani family, who are supportive of the idea of Iraq remaining one country. The withdrawal of Peshmerga forces in the face of the Iraqi advance Monday is being blamed by some of Barzani’s supporters on the Patriotic Union, which they suspect cut a secret deal with Baghdad.
Why is Kirkuk Important?
The city is 98 kilometers south of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Command of the city dictates control of the surrounding oilfields that the Kurdistan Regional Government was banking on to make an independent Kurdistan economically viable. Without the oil, Kurdistan is even less feasible as a breakaway state than it was with the oil — some critics of independence thought even before Monday’s lightning strike by the Iraqi army Kurdistan would struggle to make ends meet as an independent country.
Is Kirkuk a Kurdish city?
The Kurds say it is. They have long disputed Arab claims, arguing that the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, changed the demographic make-up of Kirkuk by moving Arab families into the city and surrounding areas. And the demographic profile of the city has undergone changes since the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein and the war against the Islamic State terror group. But the city and the province of Kirkuk has had a highly diverse population for centuries and has been a home for Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Assyrians — all of whom claim it as theirs.
How Come Kirkuk was controlled by the Kurds?
Iraqi forces fled the city on 12 June 2014 in the face of military advances by the Islamic State terror group across northern Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga forces took over to protect the city form the jihadists.
What are the interests of regional powers in the dispute over Kirkuk and what is the attitude of Washington and Moscow?
None of the regional powers — Turkey, Iran and Syria — wanted the Iraqi Kurds to secede from Iraq. All three feared that an independent Kurdistan would encourage Kurdish separatists in their own countries. Since the independence vote last month, Tehran, Ankara and Tehran have been coordinating their responses to a degree not seen before and relations have noticeably warmed between the Turks and the Iranians with Ankara pushing to hold joint military exercises with Iran’s forces. Hours after the Iraqi army and Shi’ite militias launched their operation to seize Kirkuk, Ankara announced it was closing Turkish airspace to planes flying into and out of the KRG and would hand over the Ibrahim Halil border crossing on the KRG side of the border with Turkey, which it has controlled for months, back to the Iraqi central government.
The U.S. frowned on September’s KRG independence vote and along with European powers urged the Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, not to hold it. The Western powers want Iraq to remain one state, fearing that if it doesn’t there will be forever war pitting Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites against each other. Moscow has been more nuanced and has sought in recent years to develop cooperation with both the central government in Baghdad and the KRG. Russia has long pursued friendly relations with the Kurds stretching back to 1946 when it backed a Kurdish Autonomous Republic — mainly because it undermined Western plans for Iraq. But Russian leader Vladimir Putin disapproves of breakaway states in principle — fearing they will could encourage secessionist movements in Russia. In the weeks leading up to September’s independence vote, Russian oil giant Rosneft announced a billion-dollar investment in natural gas pipelines in Kurdistan. But Moscow remained ambiguous about its position when it came to the vote.
What impact will the seizing of Kirkuk have on fight against Islamic State?
That is the question that most exercises Washington. If the Kurds now decide to fight back against the Iraqi army and supporting Shi’ite militias, it could have a major impact as it would force Baghdad to redeploy forces targeting the jihadists and distract the central government from finishing off IS. But if the Kurds don’t — and the Iraqis halt where they are and don’t push on from the disputed territories and try to enter Irbil — then the impact may be minimal. If not and open war breaks out, then IS could find room to maneuver to re-group.
Having seized Kirkuk, Baghdad has all but destroyed Kurds’ independence ambition. The Iraqis may now turn magnanimous and search for a way to reconcile Irbil to the change in fortunes. In Kurdistan there could be some ugly recriminations between Kurdish factions. How they may play is hard to predict. Certainly President Barzani and his family come out of this weakened.