State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert continued efforts to tamp down the flames threatening to ignite northern Iraq in war Friday.
Since the Kurdistan Regional Government held a successful independence referendum last month against the wishes of the Iraqi national government, the administration has tried hard to avoid taking sides in what could become yet another inter-ethnic conflict in the war-torn country. Both sides in the potential conflict, the Kurds and the Shiite Arab-majority government in Baghdad, are putative American allies in the region. The task became even more difficult Friday as reports came in of violent clashes between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters north of the oil-rich, multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, in a town called Altun Kupri.
“We are monitoring the situation closely, and call on all parties to cease all violence and provocative movements, and to coordinate their activities to restore calm,” Nauert said in a statement on the fighting Friday, continuing:
In order to avoid any misunderstandings or further clashes, we urge the central government to calm the situation by limiting federal forces’ movements in disputed areas to only those coordinated with the Kurdistan Regional Government. We are encouraged by Prime Minister Abadi’s instructions to federal forces to protect Iraqi Kurdish citizens and to not provoke conflict.
Although the Kurds have yet to formally declare independence, the referendum was enough for Baghdad to send the army to take Kirkuk from the Kurds this week after issuing an ultimatum demanding Kurdish Peshmerga forces evacuate the city. Kirkuk – home to Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen – falls in territory that has been disputed for decades and came under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government after the Kurds drove out the Islamic State in 2014. The Iraqi army fled upon the arrival of ISIS.
The statement made no mention of the involvement of Shiite militia groups, broadly tied to Iran, in the fighting. Friday’s reporting from the front lines again made reference to the presence of these Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters. Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ vaunted Quds Force special operations group, is rumored to be on the scene directing these sectarian paramilitaries.
On Thursday, Nauert went so far as to deny the State Department had specific knowledge of Iranian involvement. “[T]his operation that took place, to go north – for the Iraqi Government to go north was something that was coordinated with the Kurds,” she said in response to a reporter’s question on Iran’s role in the seizure of Kirkuk. “I’m not aware of any Iranian involvement in that, per se. I know a lot is being made of that, but I just want to underscore what a huge concern Iran remains for us, not just there but throughout the entire region.”
Instead, the State Department has reiterated their generalized call for calm. “The reassertion of federal authority over disputed areas in no way changes their status – they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution,” Nauert’s Friday statement urged. “[A]ll parties should engage in dialogue now on the basis of the Iraqi constitution, as Prime Minister Abadi offered and the Kurdistan Regional Government accepted publicly.”
The statement also reiterated the years-long official line that the United States “remains committed to a united, stable, democratic, and federal Iraq” as well as “to the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral component of the country.” Nauert emphasized the importance of the fight against ISIS, despite both Kurds and the Iraqi government having largely moved past concerns over the greatly diminished terrorist pseudo-state.