Tensions and fears of impending conflict have risen between Baghdad’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s autonomous region. On the night of October 13th there was gunfire in Tuz Khurmatu south of Kirkuk with local reports of several killed and injured.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters it was essential “we keep any potential for conflict off the table.” US advisors and special forces serve with both the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces.
The tensions come more than two weeks after Iraq's Kurds held an independence referendum. Since then, the Iraqi government has signaled to the Kurds that it wouldn't accept any kind of secession, by threatening to close the border and shutting down two international airports in the Kurdish region.
On October 11, the Kurdistan Region Security Council tweeted that Iraqi forces, including the Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and Federal Police, were “preparing a major attack in South/West Kirkuk and North Mosul on Kurdistan.” Overnight, one road linking Mosul and the Kurdish region was temporarily blocked amid fears of conflict.
The area around Kirkuk is particularly sensitive because Baghdad claims Kirkuk should not be part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Kirkuk is one of the largest oil producing areas in Iraq, and as such the conflict is not only ethnic and sectarian, but also a strategic one for Baghdad.
Peshmerga forces have been defending Kirkuk and the areas around it from the Islamic State for three years. As IS was defeated south of Kirkuk in 2016, Kurdish forces in areas around the province, such as at Tuz Khurmatu, came face-to-face with the Iranian-backed Shia militias that have been assisting Baghdad against IS. Clashes between Kurds and Shia Turkmen killed dozens. Since then, many of the Shia militias have become officially part of the Iraqi security forces, making any clashes more than just a local issue.
Kurd militia expects ISIS defeat in Raqqa expected within days, October 14, 2017. (Reuters)
On October 4, Iraqi forces, including the PMU, drove ISIS from Hawija, one of its last strongholds in Iraq. Kurdish forces who hold positions overlooking Hawija watched as the Iraqis cleared IS. Many IS fighters fled and surrendered to the Kurds, fearing reprisals from militias.
This has created a combustible situation, with Baghdad’s rhetoric threatening Kurdistan and condemning it for the referendum, there are large numbers of armed fighters from numerous groups and units west and south of Kirkuk.
The Peshmerga have sent thousands of men to bolster the area around Kirkuk. Video showed armored vehicles and tanks with Shia flags driving through villages close to Peshmerga positions.
After the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed there was a “significant Iraqi military and PMU build up” south of Kirkuk, US Major General Pat White, commanding general of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, tweeted on October 12 that he had “zero proof that any senior Iraqi government has sent threatening messages to Kurds.”
The “plan all along has been to mass Iraqi security forces close to the Pesh [Peshmerga] and PUK [another unit of Peshmerga]; to close the distance and deny Daesh [IS] freedom of maneuver,” he added in a press conference on October 12th.
"PUK" refers to Peshmerga forces aligned with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the largest political parties in the Kurdish region that dominates parts of the Kirkuk region. The increase in Iraqi forces near the Kurdish region was therefore a natural outcome of the Hawija battle, in the US-led coalition's view.
Despite the conflicting statements, the Kurds continued to warn that Iraqi tanks, Humvees and mortars were being moved close to oil fields and an air base between Taza and Tuz Khurmatu. The BBC’s Orla Guerin filmed masses of Iraqi forces on the road to Kirkuk who told her “God willing, we are going to Kirkuk, we will crush them [Kurdish forces], the city belongs to Iraqis.”
On October 13, the Peshmerga General Command released a statement urging Peshmerga forces to be ready to defend Kurdistan. “Last night, the forces of Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) and some Iraqi forces started moving and getting ready to attack the places under the control of Peshmerga around Kirkuk,” the statement read.
The Peshmerga, including local political leaders from the PUK urged Baghdad and Erbil to solve the crises through negotiation.
At the same time, Kurdish forces around Taza and the village of Bashir, quietly withdrew from several positions to what they said were better prepared defensive lines. Photos showed them in new positions next to a bridge at a place called Makhtab Khalid checkpoint only 10 kilometers from Kirkuk.
On October 13, photos and video circulating on social media showed Shia militias walking around the former Kurdish positions. They graffitied Kurdish flags, and one soldier from Iraq’s Emergency Response Division was photographed in an office next to a banner of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. A sign indicating the area had been a headquarters for the “5th battalion” of a Peshmerga unit was shown knocked on the ground.
In Tuz Khurmatu the local PUK office came under gunfire and reports said 70 Kurdish families were expelled by the Shia militias. This will stoke anger in the Kurdish region and demand a response.
For the US-led coalition, any clashes between its partners in Erbil and Baghdad would be a huge crisis. It comes as Washington seeks to pressure Iran over the Iran deal and activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The IRGC and its commanders, such as Qasem Soleimani, play an influential role in Iraq. The US-led coalition is seeking to concentrate on destroying IS in western Iraq’s Anbar province, its last stronghold.
“ISIS is on its heels,” tweeted Major General White on October 12. He pointed out that “we continue with training the Peshmerga to better enable the Iraqi Security Forces to Defeat Daesh [IS].”