Iraqi government forces continue to consolidate their control of areas in northern Iraq, displacing the KRG's Peshmerga forces from the territory. The operation has sparked tensions among the different Kurdish groups in the region.

The Iraqi forces achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the centre of the city in less than a day.
The Iraqi forces achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the centre of the city in less than a day. (Reuters)

Iraqi forces continue to capture positions in and around Kirkuk in their bid to take control of the city after a controversial independence referendum took place last month in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). 

The oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq has been under Kurdish control since 2014, and has been at the center of heated debates since the KRG announced an independence referendum in July. 

Although Kirkuk was included in last month’s referendum, it is a “disputed region” that is not part of the semi-autonomous region that constitutionally forms part of the KRG territories.

According to the Iraqi constitution, a referendum should have been held in 2007 in Kirkuk to determine the province’s status. 

But it never happened. 

The KRG’s Peshmerga forces took control of the region when they defeated Daesh in 2014.

(TRTWorld)

Analysts say the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would not be possible without the control of Kirkuk, which holds about 10 percent of Iraq’s total oil reserves.

As such, it is a critical area claimed by both the Iraqi central government and the KRG, which declared a pro-independence victory there. It did this despite boycotts from the Turkmen and Arab communities of the city. 

The presence of oil resources, as well as the ethnic and religious diversity of Kirkuk, which is home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians, and Christians means that a variety of political views and alliances are present there, further complicating the situation on the ground.
The presence of oil resources, as well as the ethnic and religious diversity of Kirkuk, which is home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians, and Christians means that a variety of political views and alliances are present there, further complicating the situation on the ground. (Reuters)

In addition to the oil resources, the ethnic and religious diversity of Kirkuk, which is home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians, and Christians means that a variety of political views and alliances are present there, further complicating the situation on the ground.

The Iraqi army was able to take control of Kirkuk earlier this week, including key oilfields, and the military base which is home to the US special forces as well. The operation to take over the contested areas was for the most part unopposed apart from some clashes that were reported between the parties south of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk, which has long been a political flashpoint in Iraq, was seen to be the center for conflict between the Iraqi central government and the KRG, after several statements from each side. 

Here’s how the events leading to the relatively takeover of Kirkuk unfolded. 

Referendum held in the KRG

The highly controversial independence referendum in the KRG-controlled areas was held on September 25 this year. Although independence is an overarching goal for much of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq, some Kurdish groups in the region thought the timing of the referendum was problematic. 

Some Kurdish leaders also questioned the intentions of KRG president Masoud Barzani, whom they believed pushed for the referendum in a pragmatic manoeuvre to deal with his declining popularity and garner support during a period of increasing strains among the various parties in the KRG.

Among the parties that did not voice direct support for the referendum at first, but later supported it was the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is a traditional rival of Barzani’s KDP and has its own Peshmerga forces.

Not only did the PUK question the timing of the referendum, it was also wary of the referendum taking places in disputed areas traditionally under PUK control, including Kirkuk. 

In the end, the referendum took place in Kirkuk, but was boycotted by the Turkmen and Arab communities. 

Kirkuk holds about 10 percent of Iraq’s total oil reserves.
Kirkuk holds about 10 percent of Iraq’s total oil reserves. (Reuters)

PUK calls for dialogue with Baghdad 

After the results of the referendum, which had ended with an overwhelming yes vote, were announced, the Iraqi government gave the KRG three days to hand over control of the airports and border crossings under its control, or face an embargo. 

The Iraqi government was joined by Turkey and Iran in conducting military drills at crossing point along their borders with KRG-controlled territory.

As tensions between the central government and Barzani's KDP party continued to simmer, the new PUK leader, and son of the late Jalal Talabani, Bafel Talabani called for cooperation with Baghdad. He also said the Kurdish-headed Kirkuk Provincial Council could be dissolved to preserve the peace. 

The PUK, unlike the KDP, traditionally has good relations with both Baghdad and Tehran. 

“I now call for unconditional negotiation with Baghdad using the constitutional law written under the guidance of Mam Jalal [Jalal Talabani]. This way we can guarantee the rights of our people ... with the support of the international community,” he said on October 12. 

He added that the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces were “on the specter of war. A war we do not need, a war we do not want.”

This sentiment was echoed by Hero Ahmad, the wife of Jalal Talabani, who is a very influential and well respected figure within the PUK.

“The phase of the referendum and its results had passed. Let’s begin a new phase for the sake of our land and our people, and this could be done in dialogue with Baghdad to solve all the problems between Baghdad and the Region in accordance to the [Iraqi] constitution and its results,” she said.

As the central government's warnings increased, thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga, primarily from the PUK, were stationed around Kirkuk. An additional 6,000 were transferred to the region, according to Kosrat Rasul, vice president of the KRG and the first deputy secretary general of the PUK.

According to Hicran Kazanci, the Iraqi Turkmen Front's (ITF) representative in Turkey, about 1,000 KDP Peshmerga were also transferred to Kirkuk. 

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late last Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, ”including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”

“These forces are approximately 3 km (1.9 miles) from Peshmerga forces. Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oilfields, airport and military base,” it said in a statement.

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km (1.9 miles) to 10 km south of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions without incident.

Start of the Kirkuk operation

Two days after Bafel Talabani’s statement, on October 14, senior Iranian military officer Qassem Soleimani, who has the strongest influence over Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi groups, visited the grave of Jalal Talabani. His visit was not restricted to the cemetary; he also had talks with some PUK officials. 

The very next day, a high-level meeting between KDP and PUK was held in Suleymaniyah. 

The meeting was attended by Barzani, Iraqi President Fuad Masum, Kosrat Rasul, and Hero Ahmed, to discuss the crisis between the KRG and Iraqi central government brought on by the referendum.

Barzani’s senior assistant, Hemin Hawrami, said in a tweet that the Kurdish parties would act together. 

As the meeting was held, tensions with the central government increased. The National Security Council headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi accused the KRG of bringing the PKK terrorist group to Kirkuk on Sunday, and said it amounted to a “declaration of war.”

The KRG disputed the claim that PKK militants were present in the city, but both Turkmen and Iraqi officials maintain that they were in the city. 

Turkmen officials say around 100 PKK militants were based in Kirkuk while Iraqi officials claim hundreds of them are active in the province.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, the EU and NATO. 

The Iraqi government then started its Kirkuk operation accompanied by the Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi militia, facing no big defenses.

There were some reports of clashes between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army south of Kirkuk, but most reports claimed relative peace as the Peshmerga withdrew to make way for Baghdad. 

By Tuesday morning, Iraqi forces had taken over the oilfields, the airport, and crucial areas including the Khanaqin region, near Iraq’s border with Iran. 

An Iraqi Turkmen journalist in Kirkuk, Omer Beyoglu, explained that the Turkmen community was celebrating the arrival of the Iraqi army in Kirkuk. 

“The Turkmen are experiencing very joyful days,” Beyoglu said. “The Peshmerga have retreated. [For many years] the Kurds have oppressed the Turkmen [in Kirkuk] very much.”

Iraqi boys gather on the road as they welcome Iraqi security forces members advancing in military vehicles in Kirkuk.
Iraqi boys gather on the road as they welcome Iraqi security forces members advancing in military vehicles in Kirkuk. (Reuters)

The Iraqi army has not stopped in Kirkuk and has also moved to Nineveh, where it took back the Yazidi-populated town of Sinjar, where the PKK also was based.

KDP Peshmerga have been controlling the city of Sinjar since 2014. Sinjar, which does not form part of the semi-autonomous KRG region, fell to Daesh, before the KDP Peshmerga drove them out.

The Peshmerga there also withdrew this week without any strong resistance.

In between all the accusations by the Kurdish parties and the Iraqi army’s taking control of the disputed areas, KRG’s Peshmerga Ministry released a statement on Tuesday:

“According to an agreement signed for the Mosul liberation operation between the Kurdistan Region and the Iraqi federal government under the monitoring of the Coalition, it had been decided that the borderlines between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army remain as they were on the day before the Mosul liberation operation started.” 

The Mosul operation by Iraqi forces started on October 17, 2016. And before the operation started, the KRG Peshmerga had control over Kirkuk, Sinjar, and some other places from where they have withdrawn in the past few days, such as Makhmur and Khanaqin, which are symbolic for Iraq's Kurds.

What can be expected next in Kirkuk?

Iraq's Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi ordered his troops on Monday to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region itself. They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the centre of the city in less than a day.

Kazanci says that the ITF and other parties are preparing for a temporary government that would have 32% representation for each of the main population groups of Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds. Other minorities would have a 4% representation. This, he said, is expected to be the status for Kirkuk until a more permanent governance solution is established.

Although it appears that Iraq's army has successfully taken control of Kirkuk from the Kurdish leadership, the KRG government has not accepted the fallback of the PUK. 

On Tuesday, the General Command of the (KDP-aligned) Peshmerga released a statement criticising the PUK for pulling back from Kirkuk. 

It said that it considered the operation of the Iraqi government along with Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi militia as a “declaration of war against the people of Kurdistan.”

It also accused the PUK of backing the “plot” and accused the group of a “historic betrayal against Kurdistan and the martyrs.” 

The PUK rejected the claims. 

A day before the KDP Peshmerga issued their statement, Hero Ahmad released a statement addressing the Kirkuk crisis, calling the many accusations against the PUK “lies” and maintaining that the (PUK) Peshmerga “defended [Kirkuk] day and night against our many enemies.”

“The media reports do nothing more than serve the enemies of the Kurds and Kurdistan,” she said in her statement.

Despite the tensions between the KDP and PUK, Kazanci does not think that this will spiral into conflict between the two parties.

“We can see that the withdrawals were done [in line with] a deal with the PUK ... Barzani has been cornered, and he has been [previously] disappointed by the US and other western [countries],” said Kazanci.

 “At this point, he does not have enough power to wage war.”

Source: TRTWorld and agencies