Iraqi forces have captured the contested city of Kirkuk in an aggressive attempt to reestablish control of its Kurdish population, which voted for independence in a non-binding referendum on September 25. Heavily outnumbered, Kurdish forces withdrew without fighting. Meanwhile, Islamic State militants used the diversion to attack two villages in Kirkuk province.
Kurdish Peshmerga forces recaptured the multi-ethnic Kirkuk in 2014 after Islamic State militants chased out the Iraqi Army. The city had remained under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It’s inclusion in the Kurdistan referendum enraged Baghdad.
The Kurdish government believes that Kirkuk and its oilfields traditionally belong to Kurdistan, as the city was once heavily Kurdish before Saddam Hussein’s program of Arabization changed the demographics dramatically. A reversal of the Arabization process before a constitutionally mandated vote on Kirkuk’s status was to have taken place by 2007, but Baghdad reneged on that promised referendum. It is one of many grievances the Kurds have with the federal government.
The full number of casualties has likely gone unreported. Kurdish Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed reported “lots of casualties” during battles in industrial zones south of the city. He also reported that Shi’ite militiamen were burning homes and murdering people in Tuz Khormato and Daquq. Six dead Peshmerga were seen in a video. A Kurdish health official reported that at least another four Peshmerga were dead and 27 had been injured in overnight fighting. An N.G.O. reported that 22 Peshmerga were killed and 70 were wounded. And seven Iraqi were reported killed. The High Commission for Human Rights (IHCHR) reported 69 civilians were killed or injured, including children. At least 54 were injured according to health officials.
Traffic heading north was heavy as tens of thousands of Kurdish residents fled before expected fighting and post-battle retribution. Among those who left was Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim, who had recently been unseated by lawmakers in Baghdad but remained at his post. Turkmen residents celebrated the withdrawal of Kurdish forces.
Peshmerga forces loyal to the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were criticized for honoring a withdrawal deal with Baghdad. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party opposed it. The rapid fall of the city has led some to conclude that both parties may have colluded with Baghdad and the Iranian government. An Iranian delegation met with P.U.K. officials in Rashad on Sunday. Among them was Pavel Talabani, who is the son of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Talabani, a Kurd, died on October 3. Controversial former Iraqi Prime Minister, now Vice-President, Nouri al-Maliki praised the P.U.K. for their cooperation.
However, the sheer number of Iraqi and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militiamen may render that a moot point as they would have overwhelmed Kurdish forces regardless of any deal-making.
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign and finance minister and now close advisor to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, described the operation as a “war” on Kurdistan by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States was “not taking sides” in the standoff, but the U.S. Embassy said it supported “peaceful reassertion” of Iraqi control in the disputed areas. Pentagon Spokesman Col. Rob Manning called the situation a distraction from the war against the Islamic State militants. The U.S.-led Coalition against ISIS/Daesh issued a statement calling any exchange of fire a “misunderstanding” between the Iraqi and the Kurdish forces. U.S. Representative Trent Franks and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer both issued statements condemning the operation. Also, U.S. Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Iraq there will be severe consequences if U.S.-provided weaponry continues to be used against Kurdish citizens.
Peshmerga forces reportedly also withdrew from Tuz Khormato and the cities of Jalawla and Qara Tapa in Diyala province. Peshmerga forces in Bashiqa and Khazar are on high alert. Shi’ite militiamen are in control of Sinjar.
At least 60 people were killed and 133 were wounded:
In Zab, an I.E.D. killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded three more, while Turkish air strikes killed eight people, possibly belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). It is unclear is Baghdad is now granting permission to Turkey to conduction operations in northern Iraq. Previously, the federal government had ordered Turkey to stop, but relations have changed since the September 25 referendum.
Two policemen were killed and another was wounded in a blast in Badush.
A bomb in Baghdad killed one person and wounded three more.
A bomb wounded two militiamen in Jurf al-Nasr (Jurf al-Sakhar).
Three militants were killed in Shura.