Iraqi Forces Clash with Kurdish Militia

Iraqi military forces have seized strategic positions around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as a showdown over Kurdish calls for independence enters a dangerous new phase, writes Joe Lauria.

By Joe Lauria

Overreaction in Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran to what in essence was a symbolic vote for independence by Iraqi Kurds last month has brought the Iraqi government to the brink of full-scale war with Kurdish authorities over the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Map of Iraq. Kurdish territory is in the northeast.

According to the latest reports, the Iraqi army on Sunday night launched a military operation to take back the city and its environs. So far it has seized a military base occupied by Kurdish forces as well as Kirkuk airport.

The Iraqi army had built up its forces outside the oil-producing city over the past several days while the Kurdish peshmerga militia re-enforced the town with 6,000 fighters. According to peshmerga intelligence, the Iranian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Shi’ite militias joined Iraq’s military build-up.

Some peshmerga units fled from advancing Iraqi forces on Monday, while others have stood their ground and engaged in clashes. The long dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over control of Kirkuk may well come to a head if the Iraqi army enters the city, where fighting could be intense.

All this came about because of a referendum for independence held on Sept. 25, in which 93 percent of Kurds voted to leave Iraq. However, Kurdish leaders repeatedly made clear they would not declare independence, despite their overwhelming mandate. Instead they want a one- to two-year negotiation with Baghdad to achieve sovereignty.

That has been flatly rejected by the central government, which asserted that there would be no negotiations for independence. Regionally, the Kurds also are isolated. Only one country openly supported the referendum and said it would recognize Kurdish independence – Israel.

Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed quasi-independence since the 2003 U.S. invasion. It has its own flag, army, and government ministries, and issues its own visas to foreign visitors. It has a robust oil industry, selling petroleum illegally through Turkey. Massive corruption and mismanagement however has not allowed the Kurds to build a modern state. It has no railroad, only one stretch of a highway inside the Kurdish capital city Erbil; government workers go months without pay; and the regional government cannot provide electricity without frequent power cuts throughout the day.

A Risky Fantasy

Despite a legitimate argument to be a sovereign state, the idea of independence in the current political climate was a fantasy.

Kurds look on at rally for independence, Erbil, Iraq, Sept. 22, 2017. (Photo credit: Joe Lauria)

Except for the Kurds, it was a meaningless referendum. The vote was also a political move to build support for the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party in presidential and parliamentary elections in two weeks, on Nov. 1. Otherwise, this referendum was not unlike a 2005 independence vote, which also garnered more than 90 percent in favor, but which also went nowhere.

The Kurdish vote has made negotiations with Baghdad over oil, Kirkuk and other disputed territories virtually impossible, as the central government demanded Erbil first cancel the referendum’s results. A planned 2007 referendum for the people of Kirkuk to decide whether they wanted to belong to Baghdad or Erbil was never held. Instead the fate of the city appears set to be decided by force of arms.

Given the tense, but stable situation, last month’s referendum could have been simply ignored by its opponents. It would have died of its own accord. Instead the governments of Iraq, Turkey and Iran have severely overreacted, giving it more legitimacy than it had on its own.

Turkey and Iran feared the vote could stir up their own restive Kurdish populations who already have been agitating for years. Turkey has fought a 30-year insurgency against its Kurds, and Iran periodically puts down uprisings. Turkish and Iranian Kurds did not need an Iraqi Kurdish referendum to continue pursuing their separatist aims.

For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, however, the overly strong reaction to the vote bolsters his domestic political support ahead of parliamentary elections next April. It is a reckless electioneering strategy risking bloodshed.

On Sept. 29, Baghdad imposed an international flight ban on the Kurdish region. On Sunday, Iran closed its three border crossings with the Kurdish region and has cut off all trade.

Border crossings from Turkey have been taken over inside Turkish territory by the central government. But so far Turkey has not cut off billions of dollars of exports to the landlocked Iraqi Kurds. Ankara is still importing the banned Kurdish oil, which Baghdad has demanded be sold through the central government.

The Iraqi military has been conducting joint exercises with Turkish and Iranian troops just kilometers from the Kurdish borders with those countries. Baghdad gave Erbil a 2 a.m. Sunday deadline to cancel the referendum and pull the peshmerga out of Kirkuk.

According to a local media report, Baghdad’s other demands were to turn over Kirkuk airport; return an Iraqi military base; give back all oil fields; hand over ISIS prisoners held by the peshmerga; permit the Iraqi army to return to positions it vacated when ISIS attacked the city in 2014, which allowed the peshmerga to take control of the city; and remove the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk governorate, who was fired by the Iraqi parliament but who has refused to step down. The Iraqi army now has enforced the first three demands.

Like the rest of the world, the U.S. opposed the referendum and urged negotiations. On Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said: “We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation. These are issues that are longstanding in some cases … We’re going to have to recalibrate and move these back to a way (in which) we solve them politically and work them out with compromised solutions.”

Yet Washington was unable to stop the Iraqi army’s advance on Kirkuk and the possibility of a new conflict breaking out in the Middle East.

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London and the Wall Street Journal among other newspapers. He is the author of How I Lost By Hillary Clinton published by OR Books. He can be reached at joelauria@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

 

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32 comments for “Iraqi Forces Clash with Kurdish Militia

  1. mike k
    October 16, 2017 at 9:55 am

    The warmongers who have been stirring up the pot in the middle east will be delighted with these developments. More lucrative business for the arms merchants. Those of us who want peace will be sidelined and made irrelevant as usual. Selfishness trumps cooperation again and again around the world, building towards a final orgy of hate and fear that will finish off Mankind.

    • Sam F
      October 16, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      It is unfortunate that the seeming wind-down of the IS war has led back to separatism. IS/AlQaeda will likely linger for many years as an insurgency, so separatism opposed by Turkey/Iran/Iraq who control the Kurds’ trade was a partisan mistake.

      Barzani may have ties to Israel, which has longstanding ties to the Kurds, and plans to move hundreds of thousands of Kurdish Jews there, so the referendum may be another zionist scheme of destabilization, triggered now by Israel’s anger at losing in Syria.

    • John Watwood
      October 17, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      Excellently said. All these conflicts, and as you put it – selfishness, and I would add greed, marches on towards the NWO Agendas.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    October 16, 2017 at 9:59 am

    I’m usually all for people getting their independence, but seeing Israel being the only Middle East nation to support this Kurd independence I feel reluctant to jump on this Kurd secession. If it weren’t for the strategic advantage that Israel would have at striking Iran, then maybe a free standing Kurdistan would be doable. Nothing in the world is a certain, and this is especially true in the Middle East. It will be worth watching to see if the U.S. changes it’s stand on a free Kurd Government being able to rise. So far I read where Senator Schumer does support a free Kurdistan, but time will tell to how much support this will gain in our U.S. establishment.

    I wish our leaders in the U.S. would start paying attention to the average Americans needs, and allow the Middle East to sort out its own problems.

  3. October 16, 2017 at 10:31 am

    Hmm. Strange article for the Consortium? No mention that Kirkuk is outside the 2014 agreed to autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq as accepted by the Iraqi constitution.

    Moon of Alabama: “The Iraqi government insisted that the situation be turned back to the pre-2014 lines. The vast majority of the people in Kirkuk are Turkmen and Arab. Kirkuk produces two-third of all oil in north Iraq. There was not a chance that any central government of Iraq would leave the city and these riches to Kurdish occupiers.”

    http://www.moonofalabama.org/2017/10/iraq-the-end-of-the-kurdish-independence-project.html

    • David G
      October 16, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Joe Lauria writes: “All this came about because of a referendum for independence held on Sept. 25 …”.

      That’s the premise of the whole piece, but he doesn’t really support it, and I doubt that’s the key factor.

      It seems to me that progress against I.S. is what precipitated these Iraqi moves in Kirkuk: with that threat beaten back, this longstanding problem again comes to the fore.

      Unfortunately for the Kurds, the Iraqi army (with Iranian and militia support) is probably a lot more formidable than when it was routed by I.S. in 2014.

      • Joe Lauria
        October 16, 2017 at 12:58 pm

        Didn’t support it?. I’ve listed all the reactions by Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran to the Kurdish vote, and gave more details in my previous piece on Consortium. It’s true that these have been long unresolved issues and the Kurds may have handed Baghdad the perfect pretext by holding the referendum. But there is no doubt the referendum is what has sparked this crisis. That Baghdad was able to devote military resources to Kirkuk after finishing their last major campaign against ISIS is not necessarily the cause of the operation. There is no way to know for sure but it seems that without the referendum the status quo would have prevailed. You would have to prove your assertion that Baghdad was planning to do this all along and just wanted to finish off the last major ISIS held town first. There’s no evidence for this, but plenty that they moved in reaction to the referendum.

        • David G
          October 16, 2017 at 1:17 pm

          That’s a lot of words without actually saying much.

          Highlight: “That Baghdad was able to devote military resources to Kirkuk after finishing their last major campaign against ISIS is not necessarily the cause of the operation.”

          Yes, I’m sure that had Baghdad *not* been “able to devote military resources to Kirkuk” they would have anyway, because of the referendum and Joe Lauria and just everything.

          This level of logic is not worth replying to further. You’re welcome to the last word.

          • anon
            October 16, 2017 at 2:11 pm

            David G is a zionist troll, judging from his comments. Don’t feed the trolls.

          • Joe Lauria
            October 18, 2017 at 10:11 am

            Anon…he is indeed a troll.

        • turk151
          October 16, 2017 at 8:29 pm

          No mention of the Pentagon’s half a billion dollar transfer of weapons to the YPG aka PKK in August alone?

          My guess is that the Pentagon is not transferring those weapons just to fight the CIA’s proxy armies.

          Overreaction, was not my first thought.

    • Joe Lauria
      October 16, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      What a strange comment from a Consortium reader. Kirkuk would not be disputed and would not have planned a referendum for the people to decide which capital they wanted to belong too if the city were within the borders of the KRG.

    • Sam F
      October 16, 2017 at 2:43 pm

      This article seems to agree with the MoA article.

      “There was not a chance that any central government of Iraq would leave the city and these riches to Kurdish occupiers…The leading Barzani clan and his KDP party, long associated with Israel, tried to solidify their resource robbery. On September 25 they held an “independence referendum” in all areas under their control. All countries, except Israel, spoke out against this move…But Barzani was urged on by the Zionists and international neo-conservatives”

    • Zachary Smith
      October 16, 2017 at 6:28 pm

      I wrote a moderately long comment, and when I attempted to “Post” it everything disappeared without a trace. This one will be somewhat more brief.

      Thanks for the Moon of Alabama link. It adds another dimension to this essay. Mr. Lauria mentioned Israel only once, and IMO expanding on that would have made a good article even better. That crappy little nation has been hell-raising everywhere, and northern Iraq is just another of those places. The US destroyed Iraq for Israel, and Israel aims to keep it destroyed. Assisting the Kurds is a win-win-win situation for them, for three nations are impacted.

      The Iraqi Kurds have not been Boy Scouts in their quest for a nation.

      The U.S. government guaranteed that Kurds would not enter Kirkuk or Mosul.[36] Soon after the start of hostilities, however, 20,000 Kurds flooded into these cities; half stayed.[37] In the days following Saddam’s fall, Kurdish militiamen sacked the Turkoman towns of Alt?n Köprü, Kirkuk, Daquq, Tuzkhurmatu, and Mandali. U.S. forces did little to prevent the pogroms and looting.[38] The peshmerga plundered abandoned government offices in Kirkuk. They burned land deeds and birth registries so as to remove evidence countering their claim that Kirkuk is a Kurdish city.[39]

      Destroying towns. Instituting pogroms. Burning records. Now where do you suppose they got those ideas? I expect they learned from some real masters at Ethnic Cleansing – the Zionist swine of Holy Israel.

      This was a useful and informative essay by Mr. Lauria, and I hope he and others will continue to keep us informed about the situation as it unfolds.

      • Zachary Smith
        October 16, 2017 at 6:29 pm
      • Brad Owen
        October 17, 2017 at 7:24 am

        All one has to do is look at a wikipedia map of the Ottoman Empire circa 1680s, and that tells you the why & wherefore of this Kurdistan movement. It comes from the European Synarchist Movement for Empire and their PanEuropa/Holy Roman Empire Project ongoing since Napoleon’s generals got together with Martinists and other extremely regressive Catholic Factions in the 1840s-50s. Their British allies in the Cecil Rhodes Group provided the instrument for keeping the Muslim World divivded and conquered: Israel (also Pakistan divided from the Indian subcontinent to have an angry India as a buffer to the eastern side of the Muslim World). NONE of this is in the least bit a National interest of America (it being all Empire BS, from which we declared our New World independence in 1776…thank Cecil Rhodes for MAKING it in our phony national interest, in the post-WWII forties, and in HOW the Old World runs its Empire business). BTW, the Turkmen swept in from the Mongolian Plains, knocking off both Persia and its rival Eastern Roman Empire, taking its capital Constantinople…again just Old World, tit-for-tat business.

      • Joe Lauria
        October 18, 2017 at 10:10 am

        I went into more detail on Israel, Kirkuk and other issues in my previous article written from Erbil a couple of weeks ago, which I linked to in the article above.

  4. mike k
    October 16, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Who is “winning” in all this middle eastern ferment?? Nobody is winning, everybody is losing, humankind is the big loser. War is a no win situation. The very idea of war is a loser. Nobody really profits from war except weapons sellers, and their profits are at the expense of our eventual extinction as a species – which will include their extinction too. Is this really “winning”??

  5. SteveK9
    October 16, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    ‘Overreaction’ ?

    It was a very well-advertised overreaction if that is what it is. Hardly a surprise to anyone.

  6. October 16, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    I think the situation is too complicated to understand from our vantage point so many miles away. It seems like separatism, as Sam said, and that would be to Israel’s liking. Confusing to me. Do the Kurds really benefit? Is it just the oil? Kurdish independence, which has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for decades?

  7. Sam F
    October 16, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    Let’s hope that Barzani only ends up using the referendum as a bargaining chip for better trade deals and autonomy. The Kurds need to export and import nearly everything through Turkey and/or Iraq. Perhaps the infrastructure they need can be built, and provide jobs for demobilized soldiers, with more assistance from Iraq.

  8. LJ
    October 16, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    I read long before IS existed , long before the attempt at Regime Change in Syria that Iraqi Kurdistan did not have enough oil to be Independent even if they could take over Kirkuk and annex the Kirkuk Oil Fields. These fields are providing appr. 1/3 of the Kurdish Oil exports all of which have been siphoned off by the Barzani Government. Barzani is already governing past his term and would not allow new elections last year. The referendum is a way to keep power by deflecting criticism. Barzani cannot claim the full support of Iraqi Kurds let alone support from Iranian, Turkish or Syrian Kurds. Barzani was demonizing PUK for not holding their position yesterday. That is no way to win friends and influence people. The reason the United States has not supported the referendum is that we can’t afford it and attempt to keep Iraq or Turkey as even partial allies. Former Ambassador Ford wrote an article several months ago in which he wondered why the Kurds were allying with the US when when push comes to shove we will abandon them. TRUE. As for Israel , they invested a lot in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Regime Change in Syria. . They might as well play their card and hope Barzani can weather the storm . If he can’t they lost like they did in Syria and backed the wrong horse as well. Maybe this is the reason Trump and Netanyahu and AIPAC are all so hot to turn the focus to Iran so they can salvage something out of the Chaos that the USA has created in the Middle East.

  9. SteveK9
    October 17, 2017 at 7:59 pm

    Well, of course Iraq took back the city. I suppose it could lead to more battles, but I doubt it. I think the status of Kirkuk has been settled. They are even making plans already for a new refinery.

  10. lizzzie dw
    October 17, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    I do not think Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria overreacted. No matter the old past history of the Kurds being promised a country it did not happen and is not going to happen now – remember the Israelis? They are ready to immediately ship in 200,000 people to populate and help run any new country. The Israelis were the only country to support this idea – and they supported and abetted it. Why do you think Barzani held a vote – which was suspect, actually. Very restricted voting regulations and only Kurds voted – none of the rest of the people who live in the area. Can you possibly imagine that any of the aforementioned countries want Israel more in their midst that it is already? That referendum would never have “died of its own accord”, not with the Israelis and the US behind it, no matter that you say that the US is against it. I found your article misleading and lacking lots of necessary information.

    • Joe Lauria
      October 18, 2017 at 10:05 am

      I lived among the Iraqi Kurds for nearly two years. The idea that Israel and the US were behind the vote is wrong. The Kurds had their own motivations. Barzani especially had his own motivations. Israel certainly had its interests in backing it, which I went into in my previous article on Consortium a few weeks ago, which I linked to and which has the information you say is lacking here. Show me the evidence the US supported this referendum???? Don’t make statements if you can’t back them up.

      • Cosmic
        October 18, 2017 at 10:02 pm

        No one can know the depth of the US. and Israeli duplicity in all matters and objectives – military, geopolitical or otherwise. That duplicity was clearly established long ago by Ben-Gurion’s tocsin: “By deception we shall make war.” His tocsin equally applies to the US. and its heinous war machine and intelligence services, which have been caught numerous times rearming and logistically supporting Al Qaeda as well as ISIS – both terrorist organizations owing their very inception and continued existence to the CIA, US. military operatives and Israel. Barzani would have never moved forward with this referendum at this time unless he felt he had the full backing of the US. and its military resources, Israel and its military resources and the combined covert resources of both countries – which are immense and unknowable. What we are witnessing today across the ME. and into strategic areas of Africa are the various raging theaters of a greater war’s objective – Ersatz Israel backed by unrestrained US. imperialism.

  11. Deplorable
    October 18, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    No matter how fair and just, Kurdish aspirations might be, they made a pact with the devil (Israel) responsible for every single conflict in the Middle East. Even if the major load of the work was due to the US, this country foreign as well as internal policies are run by Zionists in Israel and Jewish Americans who’s first loyalty is to Tel Aviv and not to America.
    In short order, the Kurds will be neutralized by the joint efforts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, militarily and economically, being geographically surrounded by powerful countries. The only sensible alternative for them, is confederation within the host countries. No matter how hard Anglo-Zionism try to balkanize and dismember the Middle East, in the end they will fail. This effort by them, will eventually provoke a backlash and a forced degree of attention to the “Jewish question” or, what the world will do, to control Israel plans for domination at any cost. They are fanning the flames of their own destruction with these actions.

  12. valeriojunio
    October 19, 2017 at 6:55 am

    americans are very happy of this instable situation, “divide et impera” tactic is EVER the better way for their interests

  13. valeriojunio
    October 19, 2017 at 6:56 am

    dirty interests

  14. USTaxpayer
    October 22, 2017 at 2:05 am

    AND with the Intelligence Agencies…8 yr reign via the Kenyan god king foreign student into the USA aka ISLAMOFASCISTNAZI Despotic DictatwhoreFromHELLAntiUSAasOneNatioinUnder GOD…spying on US Citizens…then pre plannign Hillary for Prez while ATTACKING candidate-nominee to President TRUMP …while the entire 8 yr Devout Muslim Appointees-..remain…WHO CAN BELIEVE ANYTHING coming out of the TRAITWHORES WITHIN?

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