Iraqi forces launch operation for Kurdish-held oil fields and military base
BAGHDAD — Clashes erupted early Monday in northern Iraq as Iraqi forces attempted to retake Kurdish-held oil fields and a military base near the city of Kirkuk, setting the stage for a battle between two US allies.
After a three-day stalemate, Iraqi forces advanced into the disputed province in a bid to return to positions they held before 2014, when they fled in the face of an Islamic State push. The positions have since been taken over by Kurdish troops.
The dispute between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government over land and oil dates back decades, but a Kurdish referendum for independence last month has stoked tensions. The Iraqi government, as well as the United States, Turkey and Iran all opposed the vote.
The outbreak presents a delicate dilemma for the United States, which has trained and equipped the advancing Iraqi troops, which include elite counterterrorism forces, and the Kurdish peshmerga on the other side.
But the Iraqi side is also backed by Shiite militias close to Iran, at a time when the Trump administration has spoken out to limit Iranian influence in the region, after sanctioning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from Iran last week.
Iraqi forces said they had been instructed to avoid violence, but residents of Kirkuk said gunfire and explosions could be heard in the city in the early hours of the morning. Kurdish media reported that thousands of Kurdish volunteer fighters rushed to take up arms.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had ordered his forces to “protect all citizens” as they resume their positions, state television reported.
Kurdish forces took full control of the ethnically and religiously mixed city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled large swaths of northern Iraq in 2014 in the face of an Islamic State push. It has also seized oil fields formerly managed by Baghdad that pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day. Now Iraq wants this land back.
Iraqi army, police and Popular Mobilization Unit forces, which include Iran-backed militias, massed in the area, as Kurdish forces furiously dug into the defences. Humvees and gunnery posts protected by sandbags were stationed on the main road between Baghdad and Kirkuk. Bulldozers dragged dirt up the road to build roadblocks to prevent armored convoys from advancing. The bridges were blocked.
As Kurdish authorities warned they were about to attack, Abadi tried to defuse the tension, taking to Twitter to assure Iraqi forces “cannot and will not attack our citizens”. Iraqi commanders initially dismissed the troop movements as routine deployments aimed at securing nearby Hawija, recently taken over from Islamic State militants.
But leaders of Shiite militias close to Iran said they were there to settle in the province and presented a list of demands to Kurdish peshmerga commanders.
These demands included a Kurdish withdrawal from positions such as the city’s K1 military base and oil fields.
‘Orders are to surround K1 and the oilfields and halt and call on Kurdish forces to retreat,’ said counter-terrorism officer who declined to be named due to sensitivity from subject. “There are strict orders to avoid violence.” But militia commanders adopted a more combative tone. Anyone who fights Iraqi forces is “the same as the Islamic State”, said Karim al-Nuri, spokesman for the Iraqi mobilization units. State television said counter-terrorism forces, the Iraqi army’s 9th division and federal police forces had taken “large areas” of the province without a fight. He said popular mobilization units had taken up positions “outside Kirkuk”.
Earlier in the day, Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, described the situation as ‘stable’ but said the ‘increased tension’ was distracting from the fight against militants of the Islamic State.
After recapturing the town of Hawija, Iraqi forces were to deploy to the borders with Syria to eradicate the last pockets controlled by Islamic State militants.
The confrontation with Baghdad has also caused divisions among the Kurds. Earlier in the day, senior Kurdish officials from its two main parties met in the town of Dukan to discuss how to proceed in negotiations with Baghdad. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which has closer ties to Iran and Baghdad, has been more willing to agree to a deal giving Baghdad access to key sites, unlike the Kurdistan Democratic Party. in power.
Given the financial sanctions announced against the IRGC, “it’s really comical”, said a Kurdish official who requested anonymity when criticizing an ally. “If you want to repel Iranian influence, don’t stay silent. In the Middle East, silence is seen as a sign of weakness.