Iraqi forces invade Kurdish city of Kirkuk after independence vote: NPR

Iraqi forces have launched an operation to seize Kurdish-held oil fields and a military base near Kirkuk. Rachel Martin interviews journalist Fazel Hawramy in Iraq.



RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Two of America’s allies in the fight against the Islamic State are now clashing. Iraqi state television reported early this morning that Iraqi security forces had begun to seize the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. This is all happening in the wake of a referendum that Kurdish leaders held last month on independence. Philip Issa joins us now. He is a reporter for the Associated Press in Baghdad. Philip, what can you tell us about what is happening in Kirkuk at the moment? Where is the Iraqi offensive?

PHILIP ISSA: Yes, hi. The status is that the Iraqi forces, the federal forces, seem to be moving quite quickly into areas that were once held by Kurdish forces both in the city of Kirkuk and in the area around it. The area around it is important because there’s a lot of oil wells, there’s a big airport and–and a military base too. So there were clashes between the two sides. Some of them were actually quite violent. But on the whole, the Iraqi army is – and the militias supporting it are advancing in haste.

MARTIN: What’s the point? I mean, what is the Iraqi government and, by extension, the security forces, what are they trying to accomplish? Do they want to take Kirkuk?

ISSA: Yes. They basically want to restore federal authority in Kirkuk and the region. They see it as a return to the status quo before 2014, before the arrival of the Islamic State group in northern Iraq. What happened then was that when the Islamic State group kind of appeared and started its – its advance, its insurgency, the Iraqi government forces melted away. And Kurdish forces, which have their own autonomous region nearby, entered Kirkuk and defended the city. And they have been residing in Kirkuk since 2014.

Baghdad said, you know, we want it back, we want it back. But what really started the whole conflict now was the referendum in – in the Kurdish region, in the Kurdish autonomous region in September. And so I guess they’ve just decided that they want to end this – the crisis, and they’ve decided to – to move in and claim what they say is rightfully theirs, according to – according to the legal agreements between – between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities.

MARTIN: I know it’s a complicated question, but why doesn’t Iraq just let the Kurds go? It’s been a conflict of generations with–with the Kurds who want their own independent state. Is it just oil or is there something more important at stake?

ISSA: No. I think it’s–it’s bigger than that. There are ideological factors. There is the idea that Iraq should be a unified nation-state, perhaps predominantly Arab. There’s – you know, it kind of goes into what you see, what is your vision of Iraq as some sort of unified state or – or confederation. They – there is also pressure from neighbors. I mean, Turkey and Iran also don’t want the Kurdish region to gain independence because they have their own Kurdish insurgencies which they obviously wouldn’t like – they wouldn’t like them to be independent.

MARTIN: How does it end? Presumably, the peshmerga are fighting back.

ISSA: They are, but with less force than you might expect. He – I mean, the Prime Minister made it clear that he wanted to share the administration of the city of Kirkuk itself. And anyway, that’s not really where the oil and the money are. Oil money is in the periphery.

MARTIN: Yeah.

ISSA: And the Iraqi forces are moving. So we’ll see how it resolves.

MARTIN: Philippe Issa. He’s an AP reporter in Baghdad. Thanks a lot.

ISSA: No problem. Thanks.

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