Iraqi forces advance in Kirkuk, retake oil fields
Iraqi forces took control of all the oil fields in the disputed northern province of Kirkuk on Oct. 17 demolishing the hopes of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of creating a viable independent state.Iraqi forces took control of all the oil fields in the disputed northern province of Kirkuk on Oct. 17 demolishing the hopes of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of creating a viable independent state.
Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi said on Oct. 17 that Baghdad plans to contract a foreign oil company to almost double the oil production capacity of the northern Kirkuk fields, to more than one million barrels per day.
The Kurds withdrew without a fight after federal government troops and militia entered the city of Kirkuk and seized the provincial governor’s office and key military bases in response to the KRG vote for independence on Sept. 25.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered his troops on Oct. 16 to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region itself. They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the center of the city in less than a day.
Al-Luaibi also warned the KRG authorities against blocking the Kirkuk oil export pipeline, saying they would face legal action if they did so.
The loss of all the oil fields deals a huge blow to the KRG’s already parlous finances and its dreams of economic self-sufficiency.
Iraqi forces took down the red, white, green and yellow KRG flags that had flown over the pumping stations of the Bai Hassan and Havana oil fields and raised the national flag.
The fields’ Kurdish technicians had halted production and fled late on Oct. 16 ahead of the entry of federal government troops and police.
Police Colonel Ahmed Modhi hailed the restoration of federal control over the two fields, which the Kurds had taken over during the chaos that followed the lightning advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through northern and western Iraq in 2014.
“It’s a national resource and it belongs to Iraq, just like the natural resources of the country as a whole,” Modhi told Agence France-Presse.
Oil exports via a pipeline through neighboring Turkey account for a significant share of the autonomous Kurdish government’s revenues. They have always riled Baghdad which views them as a breach of the constitution that makes them a federal responsibility.
The KRG is already going through its worst economic crisis after Baghdad severed its air links with the outside world and neighboring Iran closed its border to trade in oil products.
The government advances that have redrawn the map of northern Iraq were welcomed by Turkey, but Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım urged Baghdad to take steps to fix the “damaged demographic structure” of the city, in reference to forcefully displaced Turkmens over the decades.
“The fact that the Iraqi central government has taken control of Kirkuk is a positive development. But a governance system needs to be brought about to reestablish the city’s damaged demographic structure in line with the historical depth of the region. Otherwise, problems will continue,” Yıldırım said on Oct. 17 in an address to his parliamentary group.
He recalled that Turkmens made up the majority of the city’s population 50 years ago, but many of them had to leave Kirkuk because of pressure and exclusion over the years.
The demographic structure of the city has been changed through systematic and de facto means, Yıldırım said, adding that land registrations in Kirkuk city had been burned by the Kurdish peshmerga in recent years in a bid to implement fait accompli over the status of the city.
“We have never accepted this. We will continue to follow the developments in Kirkuk. Our contributions for the meticulous protection of the demographic structure of the city will also continue. Our sensitivity and attitudes towards all different ethnic groups are open and clear and will remain so,” he added.
Yıldırım also stressed that Ankara’s sanctions against the KRG do not target civilians, but rather the KRG administration, recalling that Turkey had decided to close its airspace to flights to and from northern Iraqi airports.
Kirkuk lies outside the autonomous region but is one of a string of territories that the Kurds have long wanted to incorporate, against the wishes of Baghdad.
Kurdish forces took over many of these territories in 2014 when units of the Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of the advance of ISIL.
But since entering the city of Kirkuk on Oct. 16, government forces have moved to retake them one by one.
On Oct. 17, troops and militia entered the Yazidi town of Sinjar after peshmerga forces withdrew without a fight, the Shiite Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force stated.
They also entered the town of Khanaqin, on the Iranian border, and three other towns in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
Sinjar, in the northwest, is infamous as the site of one of ISIL’s worst atrocities, when it killed thousands of Yazidi men and abducted thousands of women and girls as sex slaves in August 2014.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled into the nearby mountains in appalling conditions, helping to trigger U.S. intervention against the jihadists.
The Yazidis are Kurdish-speaking but follow their own non-Muslim faith that earned them the hatred of the Sunni Muslim extremists of ISIL.
Kurdish forces captured Sinjar from ISIL in 2015 and the town’s loss is a symbolic blow for the Kurdish leadership.
Ten peshmerga fighters were killed as they exchanged artillery fire with the army before it entered Kirkuk on Oct. 16 but otherwise its advance has been largely bloodless.
That has been helped by a sharp division within Kurdish ranks over last month’s independence referendum.
Peshmerga forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a historic rival of KRG leader Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), withdrew under an agreement with Baghdad, officials said. The KDP accused the PUK of “betrayal.”
The PUK, also the party of Iraqi President Fuad Masum, had supported a U.N.-backed plan for negotiations with Baghdad in exchange for dropping the referendum called by Barzani.
But KDP peshmerga also pulled out without a fight in the face of the federal government’s advance. It was they who abandoned Sinjar and the Kirkuk oil fields.
Barzani released a statement on Oct. 17, blaming PUK for the Iraqi army’s speedy advance.
“What happened in Kirkuk city was the result of unilateral decisions of some persons within a certain internal political party of Kurdistan,” he said.
In Kirkuk, the army’s 12th Division was able to restore some of its wounded pride from the collapse of 2014, as its armored cars entered its former K1 base in the northwest of the city on Oct. 16.
On Oct. 17, as it became clear that the feared bloodshed was not going to materialize, some of the tens of thousands of Kurdish residents who had fled the city began to return to their homes, security sources said.