Iraqi forces retake oil-rich city of Kirkuk in growing conflict with Kurds

Iraqi forces took control of the disputed city of Kirkuk on Monday as two US allies clashed over territory and oil following the Kurdish region’s independence vote last month.

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

Iraqi officers lowered the flag of Kurdistan and raised the Iraqi flag in front of the provincial council building in oil-rich Kirkuk, at the center of a fierce conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad. Cars swarmed roads out of town as some residents rushed to leave. Others who were unhappy with Kurdish rule took to the streets to celebrate.

The United States, which is training both Kurdish and Iraqi forces, appeared to be stuck as the crisis escalated between two partners in the fight against Islamic State.

“We don’t take sides,” President Trump said at a Rose Garden press conference, adding that the United States has a “very good relationship” with the central government and with the Kurds.

“We should never 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, he added urgency to the need to reassert its claims to Kirkuk province, which has about 10% of the country’s population. oil reserves.

A senior administration official in Washington said there was no daylight between Trump’s “don’t take sides” comment and the U.S. Embassy, ​​which said Monday morning that she supported the “peaceful reassertion” of the authority of the Baghdad government “in all disputed areas”, in accordance with the Constitution.

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

The conflict “will only serve the interests of the enemies of Iraq, including the Islamic State and the Iranian regime”, the official said.

The skirmish between forces who fought together to drive Islamic State militants from their stronghold of Mosul was a major distraction for Iraqi forces, who were due to begin an operation in the last pockets held by the insurgents near the Syrian border.

Shortly after Trump’s speech, Kurdistan’s government representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, called the US position “puzzling”, and she echoed Irbil’s accusations that Iran was already benefiting upheaval.

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

Two men emblematic of the influence of Iran-backed militias in Iraq stood alongside counter-terrorism officers as the Iraqi flag was raised in Kirkuk. One was Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the country’s powerful Badr organization. The other, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was singled out for sanctions by the US Treasury for its ties 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 not to take sides? Rahman said. “This is an Iranian-backed militia, using US weapons, to attack a US ally. I am baffled by the position of the US government. Not just President Trump’s statement, but the statements from [Defense Department] and others, trying to minimize what is happening in Kirkuk.

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

Despite US claims of efforts to organize negotiations — and Trump’s comments on Monday — Washington’s position before and after the referendum has been that the Kurds must give in to Baghdad, Rahman said. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “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 “don’t want to be in this space”, she said, “we are survivors”.

In addition to highlighting the deep divisions in Iraq, the confrontation also revealed divisions among the Kurds. Kurdish factions were divided on whether to allow Iraqi troops to enter or remain in their positions, with some Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, ordered to give up their posts.

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

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

The Kurdistan Peshmerga General Command criticized PUK officials for a “major historical 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 of Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, an umbrella group containing Iraqi-backed militias. Iran who are fighting as part of the Iraqi security forces.

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

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

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

Still in Kurdish hands were swaths of disputed territory in other provinces.

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

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