The Peshmerga General Command released a statement on Friday, urging its forces to be ready to defend Kurdistan against the central government.“Last night, the forces of Hashd al-Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Units] and some Iraqi forces started moving and getting ready to attack the places under the control of Peshmerga around Kirkuk,” the statement read.On Friday night, there was gunfire in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, with reports of several killed and wounded.US Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters it was essential “we keep any potential for conflict off the table.” US advisers and special forces soldiers serve with both the Kurdish Peshmerga and the 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 will not accept any kind of secession, by threatening to close the borders between the autonomous region and Iran and Turkey, and shutting down the two international airports in the region.On Wednesday, the Kurdistan Region Security Council tweeted that Iraqi forces, including the Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Units and the 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 fighters have been defending Kirkuk and the areas around it from Islamic State for three years.As ISIS 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 ISIS. 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 combat more than just a local issue.On October 4, Iraqi forces, including the Popular Mobilization Units, drove ISIS from Hawija, one of the Sunni jihadists’ last strongholds in Iraq. Kurdish fighters that hold positions overlooking Hawija watched as the Iraqis cleared out ISIS. Many ISIS gunmen fled and surrendered to the Kurds, fearing reprisals from militias.This has created a combustible situation, with Baghdad 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 [Popular Mobilization Units] buildup” south of Kirkuk, US Army Maj.-Gen. Pat White, commander of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, tweeted on Thursday 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 [ISIS] freedom of maneuver,” White added in a press conference.“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 area. 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 Friday 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 the Makhtab Khalid checkpoint, only 10 kilometers from Kirkuk.Photos and video circulating on social media showed Shia militias walking around the former Kurdish positions.They wrote graffiti on Kurdish flags, and one soldier from Iraq’s Emergency Response Division was photographed in an office next to a banner depicting 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 fighting between its partners in Erbil and Baghdad would be a huge crisis.This comes as Washington seeks to pressure Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal and the 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 wants to concentrate on destroying ISIS in western Iraq’s Anbar province, the terrorists’ last stronghold. “ISIS is on its heels,” tweeted White on Thursday. He pointed out that “we continue with training the Peshmerga to better enable the Iraqi security forces to defeat Daesh.”
Seth Frantzman embedded with peshmerga forces in Iraq