PESHMERGA FORCES ride on military vehicles in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, last year..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Just after two o’clock on Sunday morning in Baghdad the Prime Minister of Iraq ordered the Iraq Security Forces to “secure bases and federal institutions in Kirkuk province.”
Overnight confusion along the frontline between the Iraqis and Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government led to clashes which destroyed several vehicles and a chaotic situation that is ongoing south of Kirkuk.
The Iraqi government has been threatening the Kurdish region since a September 25th Kurdistan independence referendum
. Baghdad has also sought to have the borders of the Kurdish region closed and has closed the airports in preparation for an attack to secure oil fields and strategic facilities around Kirkuk.
Before the official announcement of the operation numerous Iraqi media showed armored columns of vehicles from various Iraqi units, including the Federal Police, the emergency response ERD, Counter-Terrorism forces (ISOF) and the Hashd al-Shaabi or Iranian-backed Shia militias. The 9th armored division and other regular Iraqi army units, many of which participated in the recent Hawija operation, were also on the move.
Although Iraqi media claimed major advances against the Kurds, the situation on the ground was more unclear.
A Peshmerga unit in an industrial area near Tal Alwad reportedly left their position due to a local agreement with Iraqi forces while Kurdistan vice-President Kosrat Rasul sent thousands of reinforcements to the frontline and plug the gap.
Iraqi forces that boasted of taking a military airport called K1, near Kirkuk, never got near it. A local photographer and fixer named Majd Helobi posted a photo of Peshmerga drinking tea at the airport and other Kurds took video to prove it was still in their hands.
Confusingly the Prime Minister of Iraq had ordered his units to “cooperate with Peshmerga,” via Twitter.
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim appeared on the streets of the city during the night to reassure citizens and called on them to defend the city. Hundreds of men with rifles from home came out to show support as they had the night before when rumors of war gripped the city.
Karim, speaking with the local Rudaw channel, said morale was high in the city. Around 3 a.m. several Iraqi vehicles were reported destroyed in clashes near Taza and Tuz Khurmatu. Video showed sporadic small arms fire in the distance.
The Iraqi and Kurdish forces both have heavy ordinance such as tanks at their disposal and the Iraqis have artillery. That it was not employed in the first hours of fighting, shows both sides are exercising caution. Kurds reported that helicopters and surveillance aircraft buzzed overhead overnight.
The complete image emerging from south of Kirkuk is still one of confusion. This is because the Peshmerga units are divided politically between the Pariotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and within the PUK there are divisions over how to deal with the crises.
However, the Iraqi forces also appear divided as to their mission. Their objectives are oil fields and an airport near Kirkuk. According to KRG President Masoud Barzani’s senior assistant Hemin Hawrami on Twitter, none of the Peshmerga positions have fallen to the Iraqi forces. According to reports, the US Pentagon has urged both sides to avoid escalation.
The operation that began on October 16th leaves many questions. First of all, despite its claims of vast advances, Kurdish media and sources on the ground say the Iraqi forces have not reached their objectives.
The participation of units that have been trained and armed by the US-led coalition is troubling especially given the coalition’s claims that they were unaware of threats to Kirkuk. These units were operating with US and coalition advisors just weeks ago in Hawija and elsewhere. The depth of Iraqi planning for the operation and the degree of participation of Iranian-backed Shia militias, who are also part of the government forces, leaves many Kurds seeing an Iranian hand behind the attack.