Iraqi forces push deeper into Kurdish-held areas, redrawing the political map
BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces seized several northern towns from Kurdish fighters on Tuesday, as the federal government in Baghdad expanded its rapid campaign to reassert its authority in areas disputed for nearly two decades.
The campaign, which began over the weekend with Iraqi forces moving to control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, has expanded to include areas the Kurds claimed after the US invasion in 2003. The operation considerably reduced the territory controlled by the Kurds and raised doubts. on the future of political leaders in the region, which has long campaigned for independence.
In his first public comments since the loss of Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani urged Kurds to stay united and suggested political rivals were responsible for the crisis. He has been under intense pressure since moving forward in an attempt at independence which seems to have backfired.
Baghdad’s push into the disputed territories comes after a Kurdish independence referendum last month opposed by the central government, regional neighbors and the United States. The dispute undermined the US goal of a coordinated military campaign against the Islamic State militant group that would result in political cooperation between the two key US allies.
Last year to the day, Kurdish and Iraqi forces launched a battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State after a historic agreement to fight in tandem. That military cooperation has been replaced in recent days by the threat that the two sides will turn their guns on each other – although Tuesday’s push by Iraqi forces appeared to head off an armed conflict as Kurdish fighters retreated from their own leader.
Barzani said Tuesday’s withdrawal of Kurdish peshmerga forces from disputed territories, which he blamed on a “unilateral decision” by some of his political rivals, meant negotiations with Baghdad over troop distribution in the region would now be based on where Kurdish forces were stationed before the start of the Mosul operation last year.
Many areas ceded on Tuesday were in Kurdish hands long before this battle was launched.
According to officials in the towns of Sinjar, Makhmur, Bashiqa, Rabia and the Mosul Dam area, Peshmerga forces from the ruling Kurdistan Regional Government party withdrew from their posts as Iraqi forces approached. A peshmerga spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
Militia forces affiliated with the Iraqi government took control of Sinjar, near the border with Syria, early on Tuesday.
A force of local Yazidis, part of the popular mobilization movement of Iraqi militias, took control of the town, residents and fighters said. Hours later, Shiite militia forces allied with Baghdad entered, they added.
Iraqi forces also announced on Tuesday the recapture of the Bai Hassan and Avana oil fields near Kirkuk, potentially depriving the Kurdish region of its main source of income. Baghdad accused the Kurds of illegally exporting oil.
At a triumphant press conference two years ago after Kurdish forces seized Sinjar from Islamic State militants, Barzani vowed that no flag other than the Kurdish flag would fly over the city.
But the Iraqi flag was raised in Sinjar on Tuesday for the first time since 2003, residents said.
Sheikh Khalaf Bahri, a Yazidi religious leader, said the situation was calm, although residents were staying indoors.
“It’s too early for them to know if they’re safe,” he said. “We hope this will be resolved soon, and we hope that the Yazidi people will not be attacked.”
Elias Sinjari, a resident, said peshmerga forces withdrew overnight, except for those from the town. They were replaced by a Baghdad-backed Yazidi militia known as the Lalish Force.
“I don’t care who owns our city, whether it’s the peshmerga or the Iraqis. What matters to us is to live in peace and to be protected,” he said by telephone. “Everyone pretends to care about Sinjar when in fact nobody has done anything for Sinjar. We are just a card that they use when they need it and then can throw away.
Since taking over Sinjar two years ago, Barzani has tried to assert control over a large swath of territory bordering the Kurdish region and eradicate the influence of Baghdad and rival Kurdish groups.
While many Yazidis consider themselves to be ethnically Kurdish, not all do. Some accuse Barzani, whose peshmerga fighters guarded the area before the Islamic State conquest, of having abandoned them in 2014.
When the peshmerga retreated, the Islamic State massacred thousands of Yazidi men and captured thousands of Yazidi women to hold as sex slaves.
Many residents of Sinjar see the arrival of new forces, particularly Shia militias from another part of the country, as an uncomfortable reminder of this trauma.
“Unfortunately, once again, the forces supposed to protect the Yazidis have left the Yazidis alone without firing a single bullet,” said Haider Shesho, a local Yazidi commander.
He said Yazidi leaders were trying to negotiate for forces from outside the area to leave the city center. “We have no problem with the Yazidi force,” he said. “We would like an international intervention. The Yazidis have suffered a lot.
Shwan reported from Erbil, Iraq. Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.