Just after two o’clock in the morning in Baghdad the prime minister of Iraq ordered the Iraqi security forces to “secure bases and federal institutions in Kirkuk province.”
Overnight, confusion along the front line between the Iraqis and Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government led to clashes which destroyed several vehicles and a chaotic situation. By morning groups of Kurdish forces had abandoned their posts, some due to a prior local agreement. In the afternoon scenes of defeat were everywhere, with black Humvees of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces surrounding a famous statue to Peshmerga at the entrance to the city and thousands of Kurds fleeing in their cars towards Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Kurds took to social media to express outrage and shock.
“They sold Kirkuk to Iran,” tweeted a person named Ravin.
“I can’t hold back my tears,” another man posted on Facebook.
In Kirkuk itself, a city that has a large Kurdish population as well as many Turkmen, Arabs and others, the scenes of resistance overnight gave way to despair in the morning. One video posted online showed civilians with firearms trying to encourage Peshmerga not to leave the city. By five o’clock the rout was complete. Jenan Moussa, a reporter from Al Aan TV, tweeted: “view from our vehicle, stuck in long line, people use any vehicle to flee Kirkuk.”
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US President Donald Trump commented to the press, "We don't like the fact that they're clashing. We're not taking sides."
He said, "We've had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we've also been on the side of Iraq."
“We are very concerned by reports of violence,” the US Embassy in Baghdad wrote in a statement. The embassy says 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 Kirkuk. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein committed many crimes against Kurds in and around the city.
On October 16 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. Some of these units were trained by the US-led coalition over the last three years.
In a statement, the government of Iraq claimed that it “carefully planned and coordinated” the operation, but the chaos in media and lack of knowledge among citizens points to the fact that the operation was not coordinated. Instead, rumors of secret deals are swirling in the Kurdistan region.
Hemin Hawrami, special assistant to KRG President Masoud Barzani, tweeted that the attack was part of a “plot” by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran. It was also due to “treason of some officials.” He asserted that the plot would fail and that the will of the people would prevail.
A press release from 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.”
Hashd al-Shaabi refers to the Shi’a militias of Popular Mobilization Units that participated in the attack. These are closely connected to the IRGC-backed Quds Force, whose leaders had been in Kirkuk on October 15 negotiating with local Kurdish groups.
Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish studies program at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, says the withdrawal will create divisions within the Kurdish autonomous region.
“They [Kurds] can fight and turn it into a war of independence and have their names written in history, or there will be no other way but to surrender to Baghdad,” he wrote in an email.
The rapid withdrawal and scenes of abuse meted out to Kurdish flags, and the dead and wounded that have been lost in the short clashes, will lead to recriminations in the Kurdish region over responsibility. It conjures up memories of defeat by Islamic State in Sinjar in 2014 and the fleeing Iraqi Army in the same year. For Kurdish politicians who on October 15 said they would defend the city to the last drop of blood, there will be questions about what happened.
The Kurdistan Ministry of Natural Resources has said oil exports will continue. Peshmerga have attempted to hold some of the oil fields. There will also be questions about the logistics of maintaining front lines near Hawija and Tuz Khurmatu, because Iraq’s offensive has made a massive open bulge in the Kurdish line. At the same time, the emboldened Iraqi forces, particularly the more extreme Iranian-backed militias, will be encouraged to keep moving.
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 major war. In a statement on October 16 the US-led coalition claimed any clashes were a “misunderstanding” and that “movements of military vehicles so far have been coordinated movements, not attacks.”
Some Kurds on social media say 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 will lead others to ask if a secret deal to give Kirkuk to Baghdad was signed and if so by who. If there was a deal, the residents of Kirkuk were not told, and Kurdistan political leaders from both parties have denied such an agreement.
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