The oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Monday witnessed two forces armed and trained by United States shooting at each other. The Iraqi forces have launched a blitzkrieg offensive taking control of the city from the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. This offensive comes weeks after the Kurdistan independence referendum was organised by the regional government led by region’s leader Masoud Barzani. Even though the Kirkuk, a city with diverse ethnicity falls outside the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous region, it participated in the voting.
(Source: Platts/ Moon of Alabama)
In 2014 after the Islamic State’s (IS/ISIS) capture of Mosul, Barzani ordered its forces to take over Kirkuk from the collapsing forces of the central Iraqi government. In 2016 and 2017 Iraqi forces defeated ISIS in Mosul. Kurdish groups took the opportunity of the ISIS defeat to occupy further land, even as that did not have a Kurdish majority population and did not belong to their autonomous region.
Iraqi government had accused Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities of bringing militants from Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK to Kirkuk, saying it considered the move a "declaration of war."
Recently, as the dispute between Iraq and KRG escalated, Kurdish operators briefly shut some 350,000 barrels per day of oil output at two large Kirkuk fields, citing security concerns. The production was resumed after Iraq threatened of military action to capture of Kirkuk oil fields.
The short suspension in production helped push up world oil prices as the shutdown represented more than half of total Kurdish output. By some estimates, the region is home to about ten percent of Iraq's reserves.
Kurds are an ethnic minority distinct from Iraq’s Arab majority. The world’s 30 million Kurdish people are largely spread out across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They are particularly concentrated in three provinces in Iraq’s northeast (Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah), an area widely referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan. There have been long-standing demands for recognition of their rights in terms of unique language and culture.
On September 25, 90% of the Kurds in Iraq had voted in favour Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) beginning negotiations with the Iraqi government for secession. Like Iraq, the independence referendum was opposed by Iran Turkey and conducted military exercises post the results. Commenting on the role the mandate Vijay Prasad, a professor of International Studies writes-
“The vote did not include the Kurds who live in Turkey (the vast majority) or those who live in Iran and Syria. No doubt that there were celebrations in these countries and that Kurdish national sensibility was given a sharp boost this week. But this is not a referendum for a Kurdish national home as much as it is a call for the secession of the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous area – already largely independent since 1991.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered that the national flag be hoisted over Kirkuk and other disputed areas. "It is my constitutional duty to work for the benefit of the citizens, and to protect our national unity that came under threat of fragmentation as a result of the referendum that was organised by the Kurdish region," Abadi said.
By Monday morning, much of the city and surrounding environment had been taken by Iraqi government forces. The offensive Iraq looking to redraw the lines to pre-2014 status, but this also opens up the danger of opening a new war front in the region.
The United States, which had failed to convince the KRG to put the referendum on hold is rushing it military commanders in the region to negotiate with both forces and de-escalate the conflict.