WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Monday refused to take sides in a brewing civil war in Iraq between its Kurdish allies in the north and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, despite desperate calls from Kurdish leaders to intervene.
Earlier in the day, Iraqi army forces along with Iran-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) swept into the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, after its officials refused to hand over certain areas to the Iraqi government by Sunday 2 a.m. local time.
There were reports of violent clashes between the two sides, and Kurdish officials reported that some Peshmerga had been killed, others injured, and some captured. They also reported thousands of Kurdish civilians fleeing the city.
“This is a catastrophe. This is absolutely a place that none of us wanted to be in,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish Regional Government representative to the U.S., told Breitbart News in a phone interview Monday.
“We need the United States to issue tough statements while also calling for dialogue between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region,” she said.
The offensive was precipitated by a referendum three weeks ago in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq in which 92.7 percent voted for statehood—which the central government vehemently opposes.
Neighboring Iran and Turkey also oppose an independent Kurdish state for fear it might empower Kurdish separatists within their own borders.
Kurdish officials and U.S. supporters argued that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been the U.S.’s most effective ally on the battlefield in the fight against ISIS, and deserve Washington’s support.
They also characterized the offensive as an Iran-backed effort and were angered by the U.S.’s unwillingness to stop the Iraqi government advance.
“There is no reason for the Shia militia—who are being controlled, manipulated, led by Iran—to be doing this in Iraq,” Rahman said.
Last week, President Trump promised a tougher stance against Iran for its continuing support for sectarian conflict throughout the region. But on Monday, he pledged to stay neutral between the two sides when asked about the impending conflict at an impromptu press conference in the Rose Garden.
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. Let me tell you, we’ve had for many years [a] very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know, and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq even though we should never have been there in the first place, but we’re not taking sides in that battle,” Trump said.
The Pentagon on Monday acknowledged that Iran has long engaged in destabilizing behavior in Iraq, but vowed to stay neutral and urged both sides to focus on the war against ISIS.
They also downplayed the urgency of the situation, saying they were aware of only one exchange of fire that was due to a misunderstanding.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed there are more than 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq, with some in the “vicinity” of Kirkuk. Those forces are not taking sides, but do have the right to defend themselves, the spokesman said.
Rahman disputed there was any misunderstanding.
“Really downplaying and saying there wasn’t any aggression, there was some confusion about the handover—I’m sorry, there was no confusion,” she said.
“When you have Abrams tanks pointing at Peshmerga who don’t have any weapons who can stop those tanks … that is an aggression and to call it anything else—I don’t know, it’s being blind, it’s deliberately being obtuse, I don’t know what the thinking is behind this,” she added.
She also disputed that there was any deal between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi army allowing for the takeover of an airport west of Kirkuk. She said some elements within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan had been tricked by the Shia militias.
“It seems that they thought they had a deal to hand over certain facilities in Kirkuk to the militias and that the militias would then stop there and not continue beyond that point. This obviously didn’t work, so what’s happened is now the Shia militia is trying to enter the city of Kirkuk and is causing a mass displacement,” she said.
Rahman also reminded the U.S. that the Kurdistan region also took in Iraqi minorities, including the Christians and the Yezidis who fled from ISIS.
“Nearly two million people have been taken care of both in Kirkuk and in the Kurdistan region by the Kurds. Now the Kurds themselves are being displaced,” she said.
She called on the U.S. to bring the two sides together and de-escalate the situation “as soon as possible,” before the situation gets worse.
Despite the deal that allowed Iraqi forces to sweep into Kirkuk, some Peshmerga commanders are vowing not to give up.
“It’s life and death,” Rahman added.