On October 5 Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon tweeted that Iraqi forces had liberated Hawija, the last Islamic State pocket in northern Iraq. After the offensive, the Iraqi Army was expected to shift far to the west, to fight ISIS in Anbar.
Instead, it paused for 10 days and then rolled into Kirkuk, stripping the Kurdistan Regional Government of one of its largest cities, conquering oil fields the Kurds had been using, and beginning a massive and unprecedented crackdown on the Kurdistan region.
The extraordinary steps Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has taken to reverse decades of Kurdish gains in autonomy seem to have the United States’ stamp of approval and have been encouraged by Iran, both of which are key allies of Baghdad.
How did this happen, and why did it happen so quickly? Up until October 5, when the Hawija offensive ended, the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces had all been fighting the same enemy, and both of them had US special forces and advisers close to their units. Both groups were being trained by parts of the 70-nation anti-ISIS coalition.
Days later they were fighting each other at hot spots along hundreds of kilometers of front lines, as the Iraqis sought to roll the Kurds back to pre-2003 borders. Most egregious in the eyes of the Kurds and their supporters is that the Iraqi Army used US equipment, ostensibly sent to help fight ISIS, to attack Kurds.
The unraveling of US relations with the Kurdistan region is symbolized by the visit of Brett McGurk, US special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, to Erbil on September 14. Speaking to journalists in the Kurdistan capital, he said how “honored we have been to work with all of you and with the heroic Kurdish Peshmerga in this fight against Daesh.”
He spoke of “historic cooperation” between Peshmerga and Iraqi forces. “That’s something that we want to see continue.”
McGurk said he had just returned from a meeting with KRG President Masoud Barzani, in which he was joined by UN Special Representative Jan Kubis, UK Ambassador to Iraq Frank Baker and US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman.
He stressed that the upcoming referendum was “ill-timed and ill-advised” and that not only the US could not support it but “that is the position of our entire international coalition.”
Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani’s response translated at press conference as he justifies referendum on independence
The Kurdish leadership did not understand the underlying threat of that message. The next day the White House released a statement calling on the Kurds to call off the September 25 referendum. It was too late in Erbil to call it off, after expectations had been built by massive rallies.
On September 28 McGurk claimed that Iraqi forces were still coordinating with Kurdish Peshmerga during the second phase of the Hawija operation. But the reality on the ground was different.
Baghdad had ordered the Kurdistan international airports in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah closed after the referendum, and the Iraqi parliament had asked the government to take back Kirkuk. Erbil was isolated, as Iran and Turkey joined Iraq to condemn Erbil.
On October 5 units of the Iraqi Army, including the 9th Armored Division, paused after taking Hawija.
They were only 15 km. from Kirkuk, and this would be the most opportune time for Iraq to grab back the city.
From October 6-9 funeral events for Kurdistan politician and former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani were held. Praised as a “unifying” politician by Abadi, and for “remarkable leadership” by McGurk, there was a quiet message to the rest of the Kurdish leadership that, with his death, things were going to change.
On October 11 former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad wrote that “Quds Force commander [Maj.-Gen. Qassem] Soleimani is in Iraq and pushing Hashtis [Hashd al-Shaabi, Shi’a militias] to attack Kirkuk. Active US engagement needed to prevent conflict.” The US Embassy in Iraq and US State Department did not respond.
On October 12 McGurk posted a photo of “Iraqi forces shifting in mass [sic] from Hawija front to west Anbar to liberate Rawa, Qaim and secure Iraq’s borders with Syria.”
This clearly implied the Iraqi Army was leaving the gates of Kirkuk, when in fact that same day demands were communicated to the Kurdish leadership to leave the city.
KRG Deputy-Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani, tweeted on October 12: “Iraqi military moves on Kirkuk will lead to a devastating conflict. Wisdom must prevail, advances must cease and dialogue must begin.”
Maj.-Gen. Pat White, commanding general of the coalition’s land component command in Iraq, tweeted that he had “zero proof that any senior in the Iraqi government has sent threatening messages to Kurds.”
The Iraqi Army, including US-trained units, was preparing its Kirkuk offensive, and on October 14 an ultimatum was delivered to the Kurdistan government to remove its Peshmerga.
Soleimani, and Hashd al-Shaabi leader Hadi al-Amiri went to Kirkuk to work out an agreement.
At the height of this crisis, US government officials were silent across the board. From the coalition to the State Department, the decision by Iraq to use its US-trained forces against Kurdish Peshmerga was not addressed or acknowledged until after dozens had been killed in clashes and the Iraqi Army was in Kirkuk on October 16.
That day the coalition did release a statement on “military movement near Kirkuk,” claiming that the movements were “coordinated” and noting that “coalition forces and advisers are not supporting government of Iraq or KRG activities near Kirkuk.”
The embassy in Baghdad was “very concerned by reports of violence” and called on “all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm.”
White tweeted that “we continue to advocate dialogue,” while Dillon sought to remind people that “Iraqis and Kurds have worked together” in the fight against ISIS. “Now in Iraq, all parties working to avoid clashes,” tweeted McGurk on October 17.
But the damage had been done and Abadi’s larger plan to take back other disputed areas, including trying to get to the Syria-KRG border crossing at Faysh-Khabur, was in motion.
The overall picture of events between October 5 and 15 as the crisis unfolded is one in which all the relevant parties – including the coalition, the special envoy, the State Department and the US Embassy in Baghdad – waited to deal with the crisis until after the Iraqi government had seized Kirkuk.
Since then the US has sought to show that it supports the Iraqi federal government. After Barzani stepped down on October 29, a State Department official said the US “commends the decision of Masoud Barzani not to seek an additional term as president of the KRG.” The US says it now wants to work with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Talabani. “A strong KRG within a unified and federal Iraq is essential for long-term stability.”
At the same time the US “supports the strong leadership of Prime Minister Abadi.”
This is a contradiction, since Abadi indicated in an interview with The Independent that he seeks to weaken the KRG and remove the rights it has enjoyed since 2003.
That includes imposing Baghdad’s control on airports and borders and over the Peshmerga, as well as oil exports.
The US talks about the 2005 constitution, which would require deciding the final status of Kirkuk, but Abadi doesn’t mention Kirkuk.
The US has played a key role in Abadi’s actions, because US-trained forces, such as the Counter-Terrorism Service, have spearheaded some operations.
Understandably, many Kurds in Iraq feel betrayed, but they also came to the realization too late about what was happening on October 15.
The US seems to have viewed Masoud Barzani as an obstacle to their plans for post-ISIS Iraq. When he didn’t heed their warnings on September 14, Baghdad saw an opening and went ahead with a radical plan to use the referendum as an excuse to permanently weaken the KRG. US inaction, whether intentional or being caught by surprise, paved the way to Kirkuk.