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Seizing Kirkuk

Photo by Kenny Cole | CC by 2.0

Elite Iraqi security forces have captured the Kurdish government headquarters buildings in the centre of Kirkuk with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordering the Iraqi flag to be raised over Kirkuk and other disputed territories. An Iraqi Oil Ministry official said that it would be “a very short time” before the Iraqi military seized all the oilfields in Kirkuk province.

The century-old movement for Kurdish independence has suffered a calamitous defeat as Iraqi military forces retake the Kirkuk oil province, facing little resistance so far from the Peshmerga fighters. Kurdish officials accuse part of the forces belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties, of “treason” in not resisting the Iraqi assault.

Iraqi Kurdish dreams of achieving real independence depended on controlling the oil wealth of Kirkuk which is now lost to them, probably forever. Such autonomy as they did have will be curtailed, with Turkey announcing that it will hand over control of the border gate between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to the central government in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government operation began early on Monday morning as troops swiftly seized two major oilfields and the headquarters of the North Oil Company. A convoy of armoured vehicles from Baghdad’s highly-trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force, which led the attack in the battle for Mosul, drove unopposed to the quarter of Kirkuk occupied by the governor’s office and other administration buildings.

Iraqi oil officials in Baghdad say that the Kurdish authorities of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had tried to close down oil production by evacuating oil workers  but that output would soon be resumed. The Kurds seized Kirkuk city in 2003 at the time of the US invasion and expanded their area of control in 2014 when the Iraqi army in northern was defeated by Isis.

The streets in Kirkuk city were deserted in the morning as people stayed in their houses or fled to KRG territory further north. So far there has been little shooting as the Peshmerga abandoned their positions in what appears to have been a prearranged withdrawal. The city has a population of one million made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, the latter two communities hostile to Kurdish rule. A resident of Kirkuk said today that ethnic Turkmen were firing guns into the air in celebration of the takeover by government forces.

Mr Abadi told his security forces in a statement read on state television “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”. He called on the Peshmerga to serve under federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces. Coming after the recapture of Mosul from Isis in July after a nine-month siege, Mr Abadi will be politically strengthened by his victory over the Kurds whose commanders had promised to defend Kirkuk to the end.

The speed and success of the Iraqi military advance against negligible resistance so far is a blow to President Masoud Barzani who ignited the present crisis. He did so by holding a referendum on Kurdish independence on 25 September that was greeted with enthusiasm by Iraqi Kurds. But it was adamantly opposed by the Iraqi central government, Iran, Turkey as well as traditional Kurdish allies such as the US and Europeans, leaving Mr Barzani isolated in the face of superior forces.

The referendum is seen, even by many of those who originally supported it, as a disastrous miscalculation by Mr Barzani. Kamran Kardaghi, a Kurdish commentator and former chief of staff to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who died last week says that “the Kurdish leadership never expected that there would be such consequences to the referendum.” Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Kurdish leader, warned before the referendum that it might turn out to be one of the classic misjudgements in Iraqi history, comparing it to Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He feared the referendum, guaranteed to alienate all the Kurds’allies, would turn out to a political error with similar calamitous consequences.

The withdrawal of part of the Kurdish forces is ultimately a reflection of deep divisions between the Kurdish leaders and their parties, whose rivalry has always been intense. The two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), founded and led for decades by Jalal Talabani, have always had separate armed forces, intelligence and political management. The KDP, strongest in west Kurdistan, fought a savage civil war with the PUK, based in the east, in the 1990s. Kirkuk was always considered PUK territory, though its PUK governor, Najmaldin Karim, has recently inclined towards support for Mr Barzani’s policies.

Part of the PUK, much divided since its leader Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke and sank into a coma, opposed the independence referendum as a manoeuvre by Mr Barzani to present himself as the great Kurdish nationalist leader. Ala Talabani, leader of the PUK parliamentary delegation in Baghdad, was shocked at the funeral of her uncle,  former Iraq president Jalal Talabani last Friday, to find that the Iraqi flag had been removed from the coffin and there was only a Kurdish flag.

The US has been closely allied to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but strongly opposed the independence referendum which it saw as provocative and divisive. Washington has called for “all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm,” adding that Isis remained the true enemy of all parties in Iraq and they should focus on its elimination.

President Trump’s denunciation of Iran when he decertified the deal over its nuclear programme last Friday could have energised Iran, traditionally a supporter of the PUK, to back an Iraqi government offensive in Kirkuk. The Iranians have always been worried about Iraqi Kurdistan becoming a base for US forces that could be used against us.

A simpler explanation for what happened is that the Kurdish leadership was more divided than expected and the Iraqi armed forces stronger, while Mr Barzani had alienated his traditional allies. A meeting of Kurdish leaders attended by Kurdish leaders on Sunday called for mediation and a non-military solution to the crisis, but by then it was too late.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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