The Iraqi army has taken the city of Kirkuk, following an October 16th advance on Kurdish military positions. According to security forces, the Counterterrorism service arrived at the governorate building in Kirkuk and took position with local police. The troops moved into the building with little opposition from the Peshmerga forces. The Kurds have withdrawn from the contested area.
Thousands of people have fled from Kirkuk to Erbil and Sulaimaniya, as the Iraqi army advanced on the Kurdish military positions around the city.
As of the morning of October 16th The Iraqi army seized control of an airport east of the city, the North Oil Company and Baba Gurgur oil fields, the K-1 military base located to the northwest of Kirkuk and the Taza Khormatu district south east of the city.
In preparation for an attack, on October 11th the Kurdish Peshmerga blocked two major roads from the Kurdish region to Mosul for several hours in fear that Iraqi central government with Shia militias were planning to advance.
The Baghdad central government denied that there were plans for an attack to occur at that time. Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi also made a statement on Thursday that he was “not going…to make war on our Kurdish citizens.”
However, on Saturday October 14th Iraqi soldiers and the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), were locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed province of Kirkuk.
The PMF is a conglomeration of Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. on October 13th. The PMF and the Iraqi forces are deployed south, and north west of Kirkuk, surrounding the city, in areas once controlled by the Islamic State.
The United States has provided military equipment to the Iraqi government. However, the PMF has acquired some of this equipment and reportedly videos surfaced in March of 2015 of a American M1 Abrams tank flying a green and yellow flag of Kitab Hezbollah, the Iranian backed militia in Iraq, which is designated as a terrorist organization.
PMF have fought alongside Iraqi forces and militias such as the Badr Organization, kitaeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which launched thousands of attacks on U.S. forces during the Iraq war.
The Iraqi central government on the 14th urged for the Peshmerga to surrender the key military position seized during the fight against the Islamic State and return to their pre-June 6th, 2014 positions by Sunday the 15th.
The Peshmerga commander on the western front said that they were going to “take all the necessary measures” and were “ready for confrontation.”
On Sunday the 15th Iraqi forces launched a major offensive over several fronts aimed at retaking the Kurdish held city of Kirkuk causing a currently unknown number of casualties, while fighting to hold Kirkuk under Kurdish control.
The Iraqi government accused the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of bringing fighters from Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to the disputed province. The KRG rejected that the PKK fighters were present in Kirkuk. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and U.K.
The Iraqi National Security Council headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement that “It is impossible to remain silent” faced with “a declaration of war towards Iraqis and government forces” which was posted on the PM’s Twitter account.
The suggestion of the PKK fighting alongside the Peshmerga, was enough for the Iraqi government to advance. The Iraqi government’s justification for seizing Kirkuk seems questionable given long running tension between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government.
Kurdish officials also have accused part of the Peshmerga forces belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties, of “treason” in not resisting the Iraqi assault. The Kurds took control of Kirkuk after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and expanded their area of control in 2014 when the Islamic state rose to power.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by the KRG’s President Masoud Barzani and the PUK which was led by Jalal Talabani before he passed away on October 6th, has always had separate armed forces, political management and intelligence. During the 1990s the two groups fought a civil war against each other. Kirkuk is generally considered a PUK territory though its governor Najmaldin Karim. The fall of Kirkuk to Baghdad may strain relations between the two Kurdish parties.
Tensions between the KRG and Iraqi government have been running high since the Kurdish referendum held on September 25th, which voted in overwhelmingly in favor of Kurdish independence. Since the referendum the Iraqi government has rejected the results saying that the non-binding vote must be annulled. The results from the vote were 92.7% in favor of independence.
The airports in the KRG region have been closed since the referendum. On Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said there has been no change to the status of the border. However, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Iran was honoring Baghdad’s request to close the crossings. Iran and neighboring Turkey both denounced the Kurdish referendum.
As the conflict continues to persist in Iraq over the contested territories, it is essential that the Kurds regain Kirkuk if they intend on pursuing independence. With Kirkuk having some of the largest oil reserves in the country and make up 4% of the oil reserves in the world, the Kurds need to be able to secure the province in hopes to have a stable resource for an independent Kurdish economy.
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