US military commanders are scrambling to stop a conflict escalating between two forces they arm and train, after the Iraqi army seized the contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, from Kurdish peshmerga.
The Pentagon sought to play down the scale of clashes between the two sides, after forces loyal to the central government in Baghdad rapidly took over nearly all the city on Monday, and Kurdish forces abandoned their positions, retreating to nearby oilfields. Video footage showed streams of Kurdish refugees leaving Kirkuk in cars.
Baghdad’s move came three weeks after a referendum on Kurdish independence included the ethnically diverse oil city – a contentious move that Baghdad viewed as an effective annexation.
The peshmerga withdrawal delivered decisive military and political gains to Baghdad and a devastating blow to the Kurdish region’s de facto president, Massoud Barzani, who had staked much of his legacy on the referendum and aimed to use it as a stepping stone to consolidate Kurdish autonomy.
Col Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, described the takeover, as “coordinated movements, not attacks” and said an exchange of fire that is reported to have resulted in several casualties was “an isolated incident”.
“We have not seen levels of violences suggested in some of the media reports,” Manning said, urging both parties to focus on the “common threat” of the Islamic State. “This is certainly not helpful and again we encourage both sides to not fight each other.”
He added that US commanders in the region were active in trying to mediate between the two sides in the city.
“Coalition leaders at all levels are engaging with their counterparts in the Iraq security forces to encourage dialogue and de-escalation,” Manning said.
Speaking at the White House, Donald Trump said: “We don’t like the fact that they are clashing, but we’re not taking sides.”
But the US embassy in Baghdad declared its support for Iraq’s reassertion of sovereignty in Kirkuk. “We support the peaceful reassertion of federal authority, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas,” the embassy said in a statement.
The confrontation with Kurdish forces is a serious threat to US efforts to focus its allies’ efforts against Isis, an effort in which Kurdish forces have been Washington’s most effective partner.
There was also concern in Washington over the role of Iran in the move into Kirkuk. The Iraqi army advanced alongside mostly Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), which are Iranian-backed.
“I am especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault. Iraqi forces must take immediate steps to de-escalate this volatile situation by ceasing their advances,” Senator John McCain said in a written statement.
“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight Isis and secure itself from external threats – not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States.”
Manning said the Pentagon had been assured by the Iraqi government and security forces that they would use US equipment “in accordance with US law and our bilateral agreements”.
“If we receive reports that US-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the US embassy to address any confirmed issues – up to the highest levels, if necessary,” Manning added.
He also said he was not aware of any direct Iranian involvement in the Kirkuk operation though the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds force, Gen Qassem Suleimani – and PMU officials loyal to Iran’s supreme leader – are reported to have directed the offensive.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, praised the Iraqi army’s move to capture Kirkuk, framing it as a blow to Israel’s strategic ambitions.
“With the defeat of the Kurds in Kirkuk, Barzani’s conspiracy against the region’s security was foiled. Barzani’s aim and Israel’s covert aim were to seize Kirkuk’s oilfields to serve the Israeli interest. In the Kurdistan region, they raise the flag of Israel and this means if Kurds gain independence in Iraq, we will share a border with Israel,” Velayati said, according to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news.
The Kirkuk governor, Najmladin Karim, has gone into hiding according to a former state department official, David Philips, who spoke to Karim on Sunday night at the time of the offensive.
“This was an attack by Shia militias under an Iranian commander,” Philips, who is now director of Columbia University programme on peace-building and rights. “The PMU is an entirely Iranian construct,” he added. “This operation was about Iran against Kurdistan.”
Philips pointed out that the US special envoy for the anti-Isis coalition, Brett McGurk, was in Baghdad over the weekend for talks with the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.
“I would like to know what he and Abadi talked about,” he said. “The long history of links to the Kurds didn’t seem to matter when it came to crunch time.”
In a statement on Monday, Abadi said: “We have only acted to fulfil our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”
Kirkuk was seized by the Kurds in the summer of 2014, after Iraqi forces fled their positions following an Isis attack on nearby Mosul. At the time, peshmerga units beat Isis militants in a race to control installations and oilfields.
Ever since, Erbil has tried to strengthen its claim on the city, which comprises Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen and is the epicentre of regional oil production. Kurdish officials had set up a pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey, through which they had been selling crude oil – amid bitter opposition from Baghdad.
The withdrawal of Kurdish forces underscores a deep rivalry between two political blocs in Iraqi Kurdistan, which came to a head in the past three days as Iraqi forces and allied Shia units stalked Kurdish forces from south of the city.
Some leaders of the PUK bloc, based in the region’s second city, Sulaymaniyah, had viewed the referendum as a partisan move by Barzani to consolidate domestic control. The veteran leader had instead insisted that the ballot represented a defining moment in Kurdish history, which he hoped would transcendhelp overcome longstanding disunity.
Divisions, however, were on stark display, as the peshmerga units capitulated, shocking even members of the two feuding parties. The general command of Kurdistan’s peshmerga slammed the PUK for what it described as a “major historic betrayal”.
In contrast, Iraqi leaders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Haidar al-Ameri, both senior commanders of the Popular Mobilisation units – a conglomerate of largely Shia forces, arrived in Kirkuk mid-afternoon to witness the Iraqi flag being raised at the governor’s office.
The decision to hold the ballot had drawn strident criticism from Iran, Turkey, Baghdad and the US. Baghdad and Tehran have blockaded the Kurdish north for the past two weeks, closing air space and partially suspending trade.
Shia units pressed into Kirkuk’s southern outskirts early on Monday and civilians started leaving the city en masse. Aziz Ahmed, an aide to the Erbil-based security tsar, Masrour Barzani, said rival security officials of the PUK bloc, had “betrayed Kirkuk and [the people of] Kurdistan, conceded to Iran and withdrew from frontlines without a fight”.
Peshmerga units loyal to Barzani remain in control of two oilfields north of Kirkuk and said they had no intention of surrendering them. But the remaining Kurdish forces appear to have little chance of holding back a bigger and better armed foe, should the central government choose to attack.