TSC IntelBrief: Baghdad Retakes Kirkuk
October 17, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front
• On October 16, Iraqi government forces, backed by various militias, moved to reclaim control over the disputed city of Kirkuk.
• The Kurds had held Kirkuk city and surrounding oil fields since the Iraqi military fled an offensive by the so-called Islamic State in 2014.
• The specter of U.S.-backed Iraqi military forces fighting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces has long been a troubling possibility.
• Iran and Turkey are exerting significant influence in this unfolding regional crisis, sparked by September’s Kurdish independence referendum.
After simmering for decades, the unfolding regional crisis over control of Kirkuk boiled over on October 16. With the decline of the so-called Islamic State, the Kirkuk region is the most contested territory in Iraq, with the Kurds holding the city and surrounding oil fields since 2014. Iraqi security forces—augmented by powerful, overwhelmingly Shi’a militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—entered Kirkuk and retook the provincial governor’s compound, several oil fields and the K-1 military air base, while raising government flags. While there were reports of sporadic fighting, there does not appear to have been open warfare between Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi security forces. However, the potential for serious fighting is at its highest in years, with all sides saying that while they won’t initiate fighting, they will respond with force if attacked.
The Kirkuk issue highlights significant divisions in what some wrongly presume to be a singular entity called ‘the Kurds.’ The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, is the leading Kurdish party calling for full independence from Baghdad. September’s highly controversial independence referendum was strongly pushed by the KDP, which included Kirkuk in the voting territory—likely a final red line for Baghdad. Meanwhile, the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK), led for decades by the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and now by current Iraqi President Fuad Masum, allowed Baghdad to take large sections of Kirkuk without a fight by negotiating a deal that saw PUK peshmerga simply hand their positions over to Iraqi forces.
The issue of Kurdish independence has drawn both Turkey and Iran more deeply into Iraqi affairs. Ankara’s concerns include both the fate of Iraqi Turkmen, who make up a significant minority in Kurdistan, and its opposition to any form of Kurdish independence that might incite Turkey’s Kurds. Iran, with its own large Kurdish minority, underlined its concerns for Kirkuk by sending Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, to meet with Kurdish officials on October 14. Turkey has closed its airspace with the Kurdish region, while Iran is openly supporting Shi’a PMF taking up positions around Kirkuk.
For its part, Baghdad is trying to reclaim what it asserts to be its rightful role as capital of a federal system it claims was being torn apart by Kurdish agitation. On October 16, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he had warned President Barzani and other Kurdish leaders that the independence referendum would compel Baghdad to reclaim Kirkuk and other disputed areas, and called on residents there to support the national military in this crisis. Both video and news reports from Kirkuk showed massive lines of cars as people fled the city—though thousands have reportedly returned.
The crisis in Kirkuk is also a nightmare for Washington. The U.S. spent billions of dollars and years of effort in training and equipping the Iraqi military, which showed itself to be a shell of a force when troopers fled an Islamic State offensive in 2014. The U.S. has also worked to train the Kurds, who have been Washington’s closest and most capable Iraqi partner for years. While Washington has tried to kick the can down the road, placating Kurdish demands for independence despite U.S. policy supporting a unified Iraq, it appears time for that has run out and the September referendum set changes into motion that will prove impossible to delay. The U.S. issued an awkward statement in response to events, calling the Kirkuk crisis ‘a misunderstanding’ that shouldn’t distract from the more important fight against the Islamic State. The problem with that U.S. stance (similar to its Islamic State-first stance in Syria), is that for most Iraqis, the crisis in Kirkuk, where so many of the country’s social and ethnic fault lines meet, comes first.
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