Iraqi government forces, some trained by the U.S. and some backed by Iran, have expelled Kurdish Peshmerga troops—longtime U.S. allies—from the disputed city of Kirkuk. The oil-rich metropolis has long been seen as the potential epicenter of Iraq’s next civil war.
The clash comes only months after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and it is just a year since I watched a combined Iraqi and Kurdish force, working together, commence those operations to free Iraq’s second most populous city from ISIS.
In fact, combat against ISIS is not entirely finished in Iraq. Fighters still linger in the deserts near the Syrian border. But it’s as if the Iraqi and Kurdish troops—both trained and equipped by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition—could not wait to turn their guns on each other.
Progress was swift as Iraqi forces advanced on the hitherto Kurdish-held city from the south and west, taking a military base and oil installations in the process. By the afternoon, special forces that had been instrumental in defeating ISIS in Mosul entered the governorate building in Kirkuk.
In a statement issued on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi said he had ordered government forces to forward “to reimpose federal authority in the province.”
Kurdish Peshmerga troops either retreated ahead of the Iraqi advance or pulled back after clashing with Iraqi troops in the early stages of the operation. As the Kurdish front collapsed, accusations of betrayal were levelled at one of the main Kurdish political parties that controls most of the troops stationed in Kirkuk.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), had given the Peshmerga “the green light to use every power to stand against” Iraqi forces if they are forced to fight, Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to Barzani said on Twitter.
Other Kurdish leaders also struck a defiant tone.
"Though we do not want to initiate war, but we will defend ourselves with high morale and will not allow Kirkuk be attacked," Kosrat Rasul, the KRG's vice president, said in a statement. Rasul had brought thousands of Peshmerga reinforcements to Kirkuk in the preceding days, after the Kurds pulled their frontline back by a few kilometres on Friday.
But as the day progressed, the Kurds continued their retreat, and civilians joined the rout. Thousands of cars clogged the roads heading out of Kirkuk towards the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah on Monday.
Kirkuk had been taken over by the Kurds in 2014 when Iraqi units stationed in the city fled ahead of the ISIS insurgents that were sweeping through the country that year. Peshmerga raced to Kirkuk and beat back ISIS attempts to take the oil-rich city and surroundings, then dug in along a strong defensive line of earthen berms, concrete walls and heavily fortified positions.
The Kurds consider Kirkuk to be a Kurdish city that should rightfully be part of the autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of the country—which last month held a controversial referendum on breaking away from Iraq. The central government in Baghdad refuses that initiative, and was livid when the Kurdistan Regional Government included Kirkuk and its Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen population in the referendum.
KRG President Barzani had hoped that the plebiscite would strengthen his hand in independence negotiations with Baghdad. But the move backfired as the Iraqi government imposed punitive measures, closing Kurdish airspace to international flights. Neighoring Turkey and Iran—keen to discourage secessionism amongst their own sizeable Kurdish minorities—threatened to cut off the landlocked Kurdish region by closing its borders.
The U.S. and its Western allies were critical of the referendum from the outset, and aim to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity.
Incensed by the Kurdish push for independence, and emboldened by the the international community’s response, Baghdad moved to escalate the simmering tensions over multi-ethnic Kirkuk.
The composition of Iraqi forces deployed at Kirkuk mirrors the medley of various outfits that eventually succeeded in driving ISIS from most of the territory it had gained in its 2014 blitz.
Regular army units equipped with U.S. M1 Abrams tanks lined up alongside Shia militia units that receive military aid from Iran. Elite counterterrorism troops that have been trained and equipped by the U.S. are taking part in the operation, as well as Rapid Reaction Forces trained by the Western military.
The Kurdish Peshmerga have received military and financial aid from a range of western governments, including the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Italy and the Netherlands.
Germany donated dozens of Milan anti-tank missile systems that were crucial in stopping suicide car bombs used by ISIS to punch through enemy lines and may now be used against Iraqi government armor.
The fallout from Kirkuk will be grave.
Even the Kurds are deeply divided as recriminations abound. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by President Barzani blamed the loss of the city on its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), accusing it of striking a deal with Baghdad and ordering some of its units to withdraw from their positions.
“We are deeply saddened to say some officials in the PUK collaborated in this plot and betrayal against Kurdistani Nation [sic],” read a statement released on Monday by the office of Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, nephew of the president and a key KDP figure.
The bulk of the Peshmerga is divided by party affiliation, and most of the forces deployed in Kirkuk are loyal to the PUK.
The struggle for Kirkuk could also ignite ethnic tensions in the city. The Arab and Turkmen population was largely hostile to Kurdish control.
Kurdish volunteers from inside and outside Kirkuk poured onto the streets in the early hours of the offensive, risking confrontation with Arab and Turkmen inhabitants.
The Iraqi Shia militias that are part of the Baghdad offensive have been most vocal against Kurdish expansionism in the wake of the Iraqi military collapse in 2014.
The Kurdish civilians fleeing Kirkuk on Monday are terrified of the militias, who have committed a range of serious human rights abuses during the war on ISIS.
If the Kurdish Regional Government decides to contest the Iraqi advance by pouring in fresh troops, Kirkuk could spark a prolonged conflict that would hamper Iraq’s post-ISIS recovery and put at risk over three million people displaced by the war on ISIS. Over one million Iraqis live in displacement camps in Kurdish-controlled territory alone, while the crucial international aid effort for the rest of the country is largely run out of the Kurdish autonomous zone.
Even if the guns fall silent in the near future, the tensions between the two sides are likely to put a strain on relief efforts, and efforts to bring the country together after a bitter three year war on terror.
Kirkuk has dragged Iraqi-Kurdish relations to a low not witnessed since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, further dividing a country already struggling to defuse tensions between its Sunni and Shia population.
A year after the commencement of the battle for Mosul marked the apex of Iraqi unity in the fight against ISIS, the country is as divided as ever, and the worst may be yet to come.