A vehicle of the Iraqi Federal police is seen on a street in Kirkuk, Iraq October 19, 2017. Picture taken October 19, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)
At 6 a.m. on Thursday, Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery, backed by infantry and Iranian- backed Shi’ite militias, launched an attack on Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq near the border with Syria and Turkey.
The attack is aimed at capturing this strategic area from the Kurdistan Regional Government.
There have also been reports of clashes and shelling on the road from Erbil to Kirkuk where Iraqi forces face off against Kurdish Peshmerga 45 km. south of the KRG’s capital.
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The battles come after a momentous 10 days in Iraq that saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) take over large swaths of territory as Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk and Sinjar. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been on a marathon series of meetings in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Iran, beginning on October 22.
In Turkey on Wednesday he stressed the need for security and economic cooperation.
Kurds offer referendum 'freeze' to appease Baghdad, October 10, 2017. (Reuters)
The US has seem befuddled by the continuing clashes between what were supposed to be two allies in the war against Islamic State. Even as the US-led coalition is helping Iraqi forces retake Anbar province, elements of the Iraqi Army that were trained and equipped by the US are clashing with Peshmerga, who were also trained and equipped by the US.
On the ground, the US Embassy in Baghdad tweeted on Wednesday that it is working with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga “to end clashes endangering a Christian community,” referring to fighting near Telskop.
On Wednesday, the Kurdistan Regional Government offered to freeze the results of the September 25 independence referendum, which had angered Baghdad and Western allies.
The KRG called for dialogue with Baghdad. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert welcomed the statement, noting “calm and dialogue are steps forward.”
However less than 24 hours later, the Kurdistan Region Security Council said it was “alarmed by intelligence signaling an imminent attack by Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Northwest of Mosul.” The council pointed at Iranian forces leaders Hadi al-Ameri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as the instigators of planned “unprovoked attacks.”
However this is also a sensitive issue because the Turkish government views the SDF as closely connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it and other countries view as a terrorist organization.
Abadi’s visit to Turkey on Wednesday came in the context of the push by Iraq to secure the rest of the Syrian-Iraq border.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy and an expert on Iraq, tweeted that “Baghdad’s current choice of brutal, unnecessary, quick-fire military means is very dark, US legislators will take a hard look at this.”
He also noted that the offensive against the Peshmerga was “initiated with blatant disregard for days of strong and explicit warnings delivered by CJTF partner nations.” The CJTF is the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve working with around 70 countries to defeat ISIS.
Which exact Iraqi units are involved in the attacks near Rabiah are not clear. Forces from the Emergency Response Division have been photographed allegedly near the front, as well as members of the 3rd Brigade of Badr.
Knights tweeted that the 9th Armored, 16th Infantry and Federal Police are also involved.
These would be units also involved in battles with Kurds closer to Erbil.
Iraq’s federal forces and Iranian- backed militias, face Kurdish Peshmerga along hundreds of kilometers of front lines. Many of these areas are front lines with the Kurds were holding against Islamic State up until October 2016. In an extraordinary turn of events, they have gone from fighting ISIS to fighting their former allies.
With up to two dozen casualties on both sides, and some Iraqi armored vehicles disabled in fighting, the Kurdish Peshmerga and leadership in Erbil have been able to resist the renewed offensive, but they continue to call on Baghdad to dialogue and hope the US and Western states will help ease the tensions.