Iraqi military takes control of Kirkuk, pushing out peshmerga
Iraq’s central government forces launched an advance early on Oct. 16 into territory held by Kurds, capturing the oil city of Kirkuk in a military response to a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) vote last month on independence.
A convoy of armored vehicles from Iraq’s elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized the provincial government headquarters in the center of Kirkuk late on Oct. 16, residents said, hours after the operation began.
A dozen armored vehicles arrived at the building and took up positions nearby alongside local police, residents said. They pulled down the KRG flag and left the Iraqi flag flying.
Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed and called on the peshmerga to cooperate in keeping the peace. But the peshmerga said Baghdad would be made to pay “a heavy price” for triggering “war on the Kurdistan people.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave instructions that the Iraqi flag be hoisted on Kirkuk and other territories claimed by both the Iraqi government and the KRG.
They were welcomed by cheering crowds of Turkmen residents of the city who drove around in convoy, occasionally firing into the air, to celebrate the Iraqi operation.
The overnight advance was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to crush the independence bid of the KRG, which has governed an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and voted on Sept. 25 to secede.
Kirkuk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Iraq, is located just outside the autonomous KRG. Kurds claim it was cleansed of Kurds and settled with Arabs under Saddam to secure control of the oil that was the source of Iraq’s wealth.
State TV said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi’ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.
A Kurdish health official said at least 10 peshmerga fighters were killed and 27 wounded during fighting overnight, but there was no confirmation of the toll from the KRG.
The “government of Abadi bears the main responsibility for triggering war on the Kurdistan people, and will be made to pay a heavy price,” the peshmerga command said in a statement, cited by KRG leader Masoud Barzani’s assistant Hemin Hawrami.
Washington works closely with both the Iraqi forces and the peshmerga to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
"We call on all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm while we continue to work with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions and avoid any further clashes,” the U.S. embassy said.
“ISIL remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace.”
Baghdad considers last month’s independence vote illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region but outside it, in Kirkuk and other areas the peshmerga occupied after driving out ISIL militants.
The secession bid was also strongly opposed by neighbors Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.
Abadi’s government has been under strong pressure from Iran-backed militias from Iraq’s Arab Shiite Muslim majority to take military action to crush the Kurdish independence bid.
On Oct. 15, Iraq’s National Security Council said it viewed as a “declaration of war” the presence of “militants not belonging to the regular security forces in Kirkuk,” including militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
While the militants’ presence was denied by KRG authorities, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Oct. 16 that PKK militants took positions in the city center and opened fire on the Iraqi forces.
There were signs of internal conflict among the Kurds, who have been divided for decades into two main factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional government leader Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of his longtime rival Jalal Talabani, who served as ceremonial Iraqi President in Baghdad from 2003-2014 and died two weeks ago.
Both parties control their own peshmerga units. While Barzani’s KDP strongly supported the independence referendum, some PUK figures were more circumspect.
Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival KDP were deployed to the north.
A peshmerga statement cited by Barzani’s assistant on Oct. 16 accused a faction within the PUK of “treason” for assisting Baghdad’s advance.
“We regret that some PUK officials helped in this plot,” it said.
The PUK had supported a U.N.-backed plan for negotiations with Baghdad in exchange for dropping the referendum.
Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, KRG officials said peshmerga had clashed with the “Popular Mobilization,” Shiite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.
However, the rapid progress of Iraqi forces suggested that peshmergas were withdrawing with little or no resistance in many areas.
Thousands of residents were seen fleeing Kirkuk, heading in buses and cars towards the KRG.
“We’re leaving because we’re scared there will be clashes” in the ethnically mixed city of 850,000 people, said 51-year-old Chounem Qader.