In a move that raised fears of escalating ethnic conflict in the region, the Iraqi army seized control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces on 16 October 2017, with help from an Iranian-backed Shiite militia. Kurdish Peshmerga forces also withdrew from Makhmour and Gwer, towns to the south of the regional capital Erbil, the next day.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the army to “impose security” on Kirkuk, saying he was acting to “protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition” after the recent Kurdish independence referendum. Kirkuk is also strategic because of its proximity to several major oilfields, which had been controlled by the Kurds and provided a major source of income to the government in Kurdistan. The oilfields were producing about 275,000 barrels a day prior to the recent clash, according to Bloomberg. The loss of that oil revenue could present a significant blow to Kurdistan’s economy.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took Kirkuk in 2014, after the Iraqi army fled as ISIS advanced. Since then, the city has been a subject of dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil and the Baghdad-based central government of Iraq. The city was historically majority Kurdish but has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. It is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan but KRG leader Masoud Barzani included it together with other disputed territories the Kurds occupied in 2014 in last month’s referendum, in which 92.7 per cent of those who voted – turnout was 72.16 per cent – supported an independent state.
The central government attempted to prevent the referendum, disputed its legitimacy and retaliated after it was carried out by halting international flights into airports in Kurdistan. Iran and Turkey – both of which have their own substantial Kurdish populations and are fearful of independence movements in their territories – also denounced the referendum.
On 16 October 2017, Iraqi forces along with the Iranian-backed Shiite militia Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advanced on the city and took control of Kirkuk’s main government building and airport as well as North Oil Company facilities.
As the forces advanced, thousands of civilians fled along with Kurdish fighters who had previously vowed to defend the city. Other citizens welcomed the incoming forces and celebrated in the streets as Kurdish flags were replaced by Iraqi banners. While the takeover was accomplished without large-scale combat, Kurdish officials said at least ten Peshmerga fighters had been killed and 27 injured.
The Kurdistan Regional Security Council said in a statement that the Iraqi forces and militia attacked using military equipment provided by the US, including Abrams tanks and Humvees. It said that Peshmerga forces had destroyed at least five Humvees. The Peshmerga General Command called the offensive a “flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan”.
Yet Kirkuk’s rapid fall and the orderly withdrawal of Kurdish forces also highlighted the divisions within Kurdistan and the political infighting between the two major political parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Peshmerga General Command claimed that members of the PUK had “helped this plot against the Kurdistan nation and committed a great and historic treason against Kurdistan and the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for Kurdistan under the PUK flag”. The PUK denied this and called the situation in Kirkuk a ”plan by an alliance of regional countries against Kurdistan and in support of the Iraqi government”.
However, Asharq al-Awsat, an international Arabic newspaper headquartered in London, reported that Shakhuan Abdullah, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Committee for Security and Defence, said the PUK withdrawal had come after a meeting between Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Bafel Talabani, son of the former Iraqi president and PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who died earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the central government defended the offensive, saying that the Kurdish leaders “preferred their personal and partisan interests to those of Iraq” when they pressed ahead with the independence referendum despite the central government’s objections.
“We tried to dissuade those in the region from holding it and not violating the constitution and to focus on the fight against Daesh [ISIS], but they did not listen to our appeals and so then we demanded they cancel the results, which also went unheeded,” Prime Minister al-Abadi said in a statement. “We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”
Turkey expressed immediate support for the “steps the Iraqi government is taking to establish its constitutional sovereignty over Kirkuk, the homeland of our Turkmen kin throughout history” and pledged to help root out any presence of the Turkey-based separatist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iran has sought to paint the Kurdish independence aspirations as an Israeli plot; Israel is the only state in the region that has openly supported the independence bid. A recent article by the Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, argued that Israel was trying to compensate for growing Iranian influence in the region by cosying up to the Kurds, writing: ‘That is the reason the Zionist regime has sought to support and have ties with the Kurds, and Tel Aviv continues strategic partnerships with Iraqi Kurds so as to prevent its isolation. On the other hand, it wants to influence regional affairs by partnering with the Kurds.’
Meanwhile, reaction from the US, which relies heavily on the Kurds in its fight against IS but fears losing its influence over Iraq’s central government, was muted. While some in the US decried the Iraqi offensive and particularly the use of American military equipment in it, President Donald Trump pointedly did not take sides.
John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned of “severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way. The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight IS and secure itself from external threats – not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a long-standing and valuable partner of the United States,” he said in a statement. “It is absolutely imperative for Prime Minister al-Abadi and the Kurdish Regional Government to engage in a dialogue about the Kurdish people’s desire for greater autonomy from Baghdad at an appropriate time and the need to halt hostilities immediately.”
Trump, in spite of having vowed to combat Iranian influence in the region, took a subdued tone on the conflict in Kirkuk, saying, “We don’t like the fact that they are clashing, but we’re not taking sides.”
The US-led coalition fighting IS called the clashes the result of a “misunderstanding” and also said the coalition is not supporting either side. Major General Robert White, commander of the coalition’s ground forces, said, “The coalition is committed to the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria, and is against any action that distracts from our mission.”
If US officials are hoping that the conflict will simply disappear until after the IS threat is neutralized, they will likely be disappointed. But if Kurdish factions pushing for independence are hoping for international support for their bid, they will likely be disappointed too.