Iraqi forces retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in escalating dispute with Kurds

Iraqi forces took control of the contested city of Kirkuk on Monday, as two U.S. allies faced off over territory and oil in the wake of the Kurdish region’s independence vote last month.

The Iraqi forces recaptured military bases, an oil field and other infrastructure held by the Kurdish troops, saying their aim was to return to positions around Kirkuk they held before fleeing in the face of an Islamic State push in 2014. But in the end they went further, entering the city itself.

Iraqi officers lowered Kurdistan’s flag and raised Iraq’s flag at the provincial council building in oil-rich Kirkuk, the center of a fierce dispute between the Kurds and Baghdad. Cars packed roads out of the city as some residents rushed to leave. Others who had been unhappy with Kurdish rule took to the streets to celebrate.

The United States, which trained both the Kurdish and Iraqi forces, seemed to be left in a bind as the crisis escalated between two partners in the fight against the Islamic State.

“We’re not taking sides,” President Trump said at a news conference in the Rose Garden, adding that the United States had a “very good relationship” with the central government and with Kurds.

Iraqi forces took control Oct. 16 of the airport and other key sites previously under Kurdish control in the northern city of Kirkuk. A Kurdish independence vote in September spurred clashes. (Reuters)

“We never should have been there,” he said, referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “but we’re not taking sides.”

A Kurdish referendum on independence last month intensified a decades-old dispute between the two sides. The Iraqi government, the United States, Turkey and Iran opposed the vote. For Baghdad, it added urgency to a need to reassert its claims to Kirkuk province, which has around 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves.

A senior administration official in Washington said there was no daylight between Trump’s “not taking sides” comment and the U.S. Embassy, which Monday morning said it supported the “peaceful reassertion” of the Baghdad government’s authority “in all disputed areas,” in line with the constitution.

“The president and the embassy in Baghdad are saying the same thing,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules. “We support joint administration between the central government and the regional government.”

Conflict “will only serve the interests of the enemies of Iraq — including ISIS and the Iranian regime,” the official said.

The skirmish between forces that fought together to oust Islamic State militants from their stronghold of Mosul presented a major distraction for Iraqi forces, which were due to begin an operation in the last pockets the insurgents control near the Syrian border.

Shortly after Trump spoke, the Kurdistan government’s representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, called the U.S. position “bewildering,” and she echoed Irbil’s charges that Iran was already benefiting from the upheaval.

Iraqi boys gather on the road as they welcome Iraqi security forces members, who continue to advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk on Oct. 16, 2017. (Stringer/Reuters)

Two men emblematic of ­Iranian-backed militia influence in Iraq stood alongside counterterrorism officers as the Iraqi flag was raised in Kirkuk. One was Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the country’s powerful Badr Organization. The other, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, has been designated for sanctions by the U.S. Treasury for his links to Kitaeb Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful branch of the Iranian military.

“How can you not take sides?” Rahman said. “This is Iranian-backed militia, using American weapons, to attack an ally of the United States. I’m bewildered by the U.S. government position. Not just President Trump’s statement, but statements from the [Defense Department] and others, trying to downplay what’s been happening in Kirkuk.”

The militias, she said, “have Abram tanks, artillery, they have deployed in their thousands.” She and her government are particularly disappointed, she said, “in light of what the administration has been saying since Thursday,” when Trump announced new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard and described “Iran’s role as a destabilizer in the Middle East.”

Despite U.S. claims of efforts to set up negotiations — and Trump’s comments Monday — Washington’s position before and after the referendum has been that the Kurds must yield to Baghdad, Rahman said. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “has decided to impose his will by force,” she said. “We will counter this. We will push back. The potential for all-out war is there.”

“I hope we haven’t reached the point of no return,” Rahman said. “If we do, it will be catastrophic for everyone,” including “the United States and others who have invested so much political capital, as well as treasure and blood,” in Iraq.

Although the Kurdish people “do not want to be in that space,” she said, “we are survivors.”

As well as highlighting the deep rifts in Iraq, the confrontation has also exposed splits among the Kurds. Kurdish factions were divided on whether to allow in Iraqi troops or stand their ground, with some Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, ordered to give up their posts.

The Iraqi government said it “carefully planned and coordinated” the return of federal forces to Kirkuk with local security forces in advance. But it accused other Kurdish forces from outside the province of sending reinforcements to “harass and obstruct” federal forces.

Some elements of Kurdistan’s Patriotic Union party, or PUK, whose forces dominate in the area, agreed to withdraw in coordination with Baghdad. But the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, opposed a deal.

The general command of Kurdistan’s peshmerga slammed PUK officials for a “major historic betrayal of Kurdistan” by handing over positions, and the militia vowed to fight.

The KDP-affiliated Kurdistan Region Security Council said it destroyed five U.S.-supplied Humvees used in the advance by Iraq’s popular mobilization units, an umbrella group containing Iranian-backed militias that fight as part of Iraq’s security forces.

A video shared online showed six bodies of what appeared to be Kurdish peshmerga soldiers lying by a roadside near Iraqi vehicles. One wore the uniform of a lieutenant colonel.

“This is the result of disobedience of Masoud Barzani,” said the Iraqi fighter who was filming, referring to the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan and the KDP.

A curfew was imposed on the city Monday night as Iraqi forces announced they had completed their “first phase.”

Still in the hands of Kurds were swaths of disputed territories in other provinces.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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