On October 14, Baghdad issued an ultimatum to Kurdish militant groups, particularly the Peshmerga, demanding them to abandon the province of Kirkuk. Similar demands were voiced by Iraqi political leaders immediately after the referendum of independence held in Iraqi Kurdish regions on September 25. However, this time around those demands came in the form of an ultimatum with a time limit of 48 hours. The Peshmerga command claimed it did not receive any ultimatums.
However, there’s a very good reason as to why Baghdad chose this particular time to take such a strong stance. The Iraqi army has just cleared the Khavijah region east of Mosul of any remaining ISIS militants, so it has managed to free up to 15,000 men capable of forcing the Kurds to fulfill Baghdad’s demands. It is clear that Iraqi Kurds are following Barzani’s direct orders and, therefore have no intention of voluntarily leaving Kirkuk, which they captured after replacing ISIS forces operating in this region. It is also no wonder as to why they consider themselves rightful owners of the region, especially when the majority this province’s population consists of Kurds.
But this time around, Erbil clearly hasn’t taken into account the deadly seriousness of Baghdad’s intentions. Moreover, around the same time there were clashes being reported between the Peshmerga units and Turkmen militias. Turkmen are an ethnic minority of Iraq, which considers itself even more oppressed than local Sunni and Kurdish communities, so they almost automatically consider themselves Anakara’s allies due to their ethnic origin and due to the fact that they can find no other support. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, most Turkmen would find themselves in a difficult position despite the fact that a number of higher military and political positions were occupied by fellow ethnic representatives. However, once the US invaded Iraq those policies were abandoned and the Turkmen found themselves a persecuted minority with no viable choices. Only Turkey, which has always perceived the lands inhabited by Turkmen as a kind of buffer against the Kurds would support them in exchange for their loyalty. It is not surprising that after September 25, with Ankara opposed to the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum, the Turkmen would immediately aggravate their relations with the Kurds, and now the conflict has reached a boiling point. In addition, it must be understood that the Turkmen are concerned about their own future if Iraqi Kurds gain independence, since they have no reason to believe that the Kurds would treat them fairly.
As the Kurds decided how to react to the ultimatum, Baghdad put forward new conditions for the Kurds: the Peshmerga must transfer all of Kirkuk’s oil fields, the airport, numerous military bases and all the prisoners they captured under the control of the civil and military administration appointed by the central Iraqi government. At that point it became obvious that Kirkuk would become a source of major discord between Kurdistan and Baghdad. The Kurds have clearly miscalculated this time, assuming that the Iraqi army has been greatly weakened by countless skirmishes with ISIS terrorists in nearby Mosul and over the course of its liberation.
Erbil hasn’t taken into account the fact that Iran is increasingly more determined to act in this situation. Tehran has understood what the Kurds truly represent both in Iraq and neighboring Syria, as they seized oil fields in Arab regions of the country while Syrian army units were trying to overcome ISIS militants dug in at Deir ez-Zor and Mayadin. Iranian commanders would threaten the Peshmerga units with physical elimination if they failed to fulfill the ultimatum conditions. Naturally, under these conditions, Kurds were not in position to even negotiate the terms of the ultimatum.
The situation in the Middle East is still rapidly escalating. Apparently, Iran has decided to act quickly, getting Baghdad involved in this face-off. This fact has been exemplified by Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani arrival at the headquarters of the Shia groups operating south of Kirkuk on October 14. Obviously, he came to prepare an army operation against the Peshmerga in the area. At the same time, Baghdad and Shia militant leaders would make statements that they don’t see a military solution to the Kirkuk problem. Nevertheless, to a certain point, Baghdad, and to an even greater point, various Shia groups, are under fairly tight control by Tehran, and therefore they are not completely free in their decisions. Iran could escalate to a full-scale war against the Kurds, and the Iraqis would have little choice but to support Tehran’s decision.
The resource-rich Kirkuk oil fields, which have been under Kurdish control for several years now, are too important for Baghdad to surrender them to the Kurds without a fight. The Kurds are still shocked by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks and US President Donald Trump’s silence that followed the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum. But they are still looking to the United States, unable to understand what Washington wants them to do. But the air blockade of Kurdistan has already become a reality, while other restricting actions on the part of Iraq cause even greater fears, like real threats coming from Turkey, which became a very unpleasant “turn” for the Kurdish leaders who believed that they had secured a sort of a secret agreement with Ankara and that no change in bilateral relations with Turkey woulf occur after the referendum. In addition, Baghdad is following Iran’s lead, determined to resort to more decisive actions.
The situation that the Kurds have found themselves in is one that leaves them looking weak and vulnerable. And for the people of the Middle East, this is perhaps even worse than death. A hundred years after the redrawing of the Middle East carried out by Britain and France, excluded the Kurdish people. And this time around the Kurds are facing the double standards of the international community on the issue of self-determination once again. But they themselves made the mistake of holding a referendum, against the will of all potentially hostile neighbors, relying on the support of Israeli and American special interests.
Under these conditions, collision between the Kurds themselves, or rather, between their two main political forces – the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, began. The latter relied on Iran’s support and decided not to get involved in the fight over Kirkuk and instead, began withdrawing its troops from the region. The forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party governed by Barzani himself, decided to put up resistance. Against this background, Iraqi army units were quick to take control of transportation hubs and infrastructure near Kirkuk city, all of which was previously occupied by Kurdish militants. According to the Iraqi Joint Operations Command, an organization that includes various pro-government armed groups, “progress” was made in “securing the area” around Kirkuk. Pro-government forces have regained control over two bridges, two roads and an industrial zone located southwest of the city, along with gas production facilities, a power plant, a processing plant and a police station.
According to the Iraqi media, the military was tasked with taking control of the oil fields, seizing a local military base and a military airport. Iraqi TV stations would report on the afternoon of October 16 that government troops, without meeting resistance, seized most of the province. It was specified that the armed units of the Shiite militia did not participate in the operation, as it was conducted by the forces of regular army units. Eyewitnesses of military operations say that sounds of gunfire were heard from time to time in several parts of the province, and clashes between the government forces of Iraq and the Kurdish militia of the Peshmerga occurred in the southern part of the industrial area. Earlier, the provincial governor called on local residents to take to the streets to protect their territories. Later on the same day, reports appeared indicating that oil facilities had come under the control of pro-government troops. It’s also been announced that the Iraqi state flag flies over the city’s central administration building.
It’s possible that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may try to put a stop to the military operation, although Shia militant groups may as well ignore his attempt if Tehran is determined to put an end to the ongoing occupation of Kirkuk.
After the fall of Kirkuk, any steps towards the recognition of Iraqi Kurdistan independence vote is out of the question. Instead it’s highly possible that the region will lose its autonomous status. Therefore, now Barzani faces a difficult task of political survival, since he has suffered a crushing defeat in just one day. To achieve this he will have to minimize any military risks in a bid not to lose the whole province and oil fields along with it, which will be perceived in Iraqi Kurdistan as an obvious defeat. But this is a task too difficult for anybody to achieve.
Beyond Barzani’s losses, one must also consider Washington’s. Upon starting its attempts to push Iran out from Syria, it will now lose its stronghold in Iraq. Tehran’s determination to act quickly was further prompted by ongoing US threats to leave the Iran nuclear deal.
So Washington has once again contributed to the strengthening of Iran’s role across the Middle East due to the short-sightedness and incompetence of its elected representatives.
Alexander Orlov, Political Scientist and Expert Orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”