On Tuesday, residents of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq awoke to news that Iraqi forces, including Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, were occupying a half-dozen areas the Kurds had controlled for years.
It was the second day in a row of shocking news after the strategically and culturally important city of Kirkuk fell to a lightning fast advance of Iraqi armored vehicles.
From Khanaqin on the Iranian border to Kirkuk, to Makhmur, Gwer, Basqhiqa, Rabiah and Sinjar near the Syrian border, Iraqi forces moved into positions from which Kurdish Peshmerga had been ordered to withdraw. By nightfall, reports indicated the Iraqi forces would continue toward Mosul Dam and consolidate other gains.
The historic changes on the ground began in Baghdad at 2 a.m. on Monday, when the prime minister ordered Iraqi security forces to “secure bases and federal institutions in Kirkuk Province.” Confusion along the front line between the Iraqis and Kurds led to a chaotic situation and clashes that destroyed several vehicles.
By later that morning, groups of Kurdish forces had abandoned their posts, some due to a prior local agreement between factions of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Baghdad.
In the afternoon, scenes of defeat were everywhere. Black Humvees of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces surrounded a famous statue honoring the Peshmerga at the entrance to Kirkuk as thousands of Kurds fled in their cars toward Erbil and Sulaimaniya.
With the loss of Sinjar on Tuesday – a particularly sensitive area, being the site of ISIS genocide of Yazidis in 2014, and areas such as Bashiqa, where dozens of Kurds died fighting ISIS in the last three years – Kurds took to social media to express outrage and shock.
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“They sold Kirkuk to Iran,” tweeted a person named Ravin.
“I can’t hold back my tears,” another man said on Facebook.
In Kirkuk itself – a city with a large Kurdish population as well as many Turkmen, Arabs and others – initial resistance gave way to despair among Kurds and celebration among Turkmen. One video posted online showed Kurdish civilians with firearms trying to encourage Peshmerga not to leave the city. There was a visible sense of abandonment and confusion among Kurds.
“We are very concerned by reports of violence,” the US Embassy in Baghdad wrote.
The embassy said the US supports “joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution in all disputed areas.”
The Kirkuk Governorate is one of those disputed areas. Its status was supposed to be determined soon after the 2005 constitution was approved, but that never happened. This was one of the complaints of the Kurdistan autonomous region during the lead-up to the referendum on independence.
Since the Iraqi Army abandoned Kirkuk in 2014, when Islamic State attacked, it has been administered from Erbil.
Kurdish attachment to Kirkuk runs deep. It is sometimes called the Kurdish Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, and Kurds have been fighting against Baghdad for decades to control it. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein committed many crimes against Kurds in and around the city.
KRG President Masoud Barzani on Tuesday, referenced the genocide and killings of the Saddam Hussein era before blaming the withdrawal on a “unilateral decision of a few people within a specific party.” He called for unity and stability.
“For the people of Kurdistan, your voice for independence of Kurdistan which you cast was heard by the world, will not go in vain and we will not allow it to go in vain,” he said, according to a statement from his senior assistant.
How and why the Kurdish region decided to withdraw from huge amounts of territory, abandoning some areas it had held for decades, will remain a question in days to come. On Monday, the Iraqi government sent various units from its forces, including the Federal Police, Emergency Response Division and counterterrorism forces, to take over “federal institutions, military bases and vital infrastructure” in Kirkuk and disputed areas. Some of these units were trained by the US-led coalition over the last three years.
In a statement, the government of Iraq claimed it “carefully planned and coordinated” the operation. But the lack of knowledge among citizens points to the fact that the operation was not coordinated.
Instead, rumors of secret deals and accusations of betrayal are swirling in the Kurdistan region.
Hemin Hawrami, special assistant to Barzani, tweeted that the attack was part of a “plot” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran and was also due to “treason of some officials.”
He asserted that the plot would fail and the will of the people would prevail. However, senior members of the Hashd al-Shaabi Shi’a militias, including Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, helped raise the Iraqi flag in Kirkuk on Monday.
The General Command of Peshmerga Forces expressed dismay that the “attack was carried out with United States-supplied tanks and heavy arms provided to [the] Iraqi Army and now at Hashd al-Shaabi and Iranian IRGC and Quds Force hands.”
The Kurdistan Natural Resources Ministry has said that oil exports will continue. Peshmerga has attempted to hold on to some of the oil fields.
So far, the US has not responded robustly to the fact that two forces they trained and equipped, the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga, have come close to a conflict. In a statement on Monday, the US-led coalition claimed any clashes were a “misunderstanding” and that “movements of military vehicles so far have been coordinated movements, not attacks.” US President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday, “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides.”
Some Kurds said on social media they have been betrayed by the US after years of working together fighting Islamic State.
However, the reference to “coordination” by Baghdad and the coalition indicate a secret deal to give Kirkuk and the disputed areas to Baghdad.
According to some reports, Kurdish PUK leaders in Sulaimaniya agreed to a deal with Baghdad to return Kirkuk to Baghdad and receive in exchange the re-opening of their airport and some autonomy.
This leaves questions about what will happen in Erbil and the rest of the Kurdish region.
On September 25, the region invested heavily in an independence referendum, including in disputed areas. Withdrawing from those areas, often acquired at great cost in fighting, leaves many questions and internal recriminations. “Worst week of my life,” journalist Paul Iddon, a resident of Erbil, wrote on Facebook. “I feel shame,” wrote another.
Asked if he will go back, a resident of Kirkuk said yes: “When we shall liberate it.”
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