President Donald Trump has yet to personally weigh in—either through official White House outlets or on Twitter—on the burgeoning civil war in Kirkuk, Iraq, following the invasion of the Kurdish-held province by Iraqi soldiers and Iran-backed Shiite militias.
The U.S.-led Global Coalition has called the attack on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) military, the Peshmerga, a “misunderstanding,” while the U.S. embassy in Baghdad expressed “concern” regarding the invasion in a statement Monday.
President Trump repeatedly asserted support for the Kurdish people, whose Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have played an outsized role in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS), as a candidate for president in 2016. Following the KRG holding a referendum on seceding from Iraq, however, the U.S. State Department has backed the Iraqi government against Kurdish independence aspirations, and Trump himself has remained silent.
“We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions,” the Global Coalition said in a statement Monday, according to Kurdish outlet Rudaw.
“The Coalition is monitoring movements of military vehicles and personnel in the vicinity of Kirkuk. These movements of military vehicles, so far, have been coordinated movements, not attacks. … Coalition forces and advisors are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness Oct. 16.”
The U.S. State Department, through its embassy in Baghdad, stated that it was “concerned by reports of violence in Kirkuk and deplore any loss of life.”
“We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution in all disputed areas,” the statement continued. “ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from menace.”
Maj. Gen. Robert White, Commanding General of the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command—Operation Inherent Resolve, issued a separate remark calling for “dialogue” between Iraqi officials and the KRG, which Baghdad has repeatedly rejected despite overtures from Erbil.
On Friday, Kurdish Peshmerga deployed thousands of troops to disputed Kirkuk in response to movements by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi—Shiite militias affiliated with the Iranian government that Baghdad legalized as official wings of the Iraqi military during the battle to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS. The PMF was created by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian-born senior Shiite cleric and rely on significant Iranian support to continue fighting.
Kirkuk is an oil-rich and ethnically diverse region originally outside of the limits of traditional Kurdistan. The KRG has controlled it since 2014, when the Islamic State attacked and the Iraqi military fled, leaving the Peshmerga to defeat ISIS. Fleeing Iraqi troops have often found a safe haven in Erbil.
“We are alarmed by the significant Iraqi military and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) build up in Bashir and Taz, south of Kirkuk, including tanks, heavy artillery, humvees, and mortars. These forces are approximately 3 kilometers from Peshmerga front line positions. Intelligence shows intent to take over nearby oil fields, airport, and military base,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a statement Friday.
By Monday, the Peshmerga were under attack.
“The Hashd al-Shaabi forces affiliated with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force led by Eqbalpur, in cooperation with Iraqi forces started a broad attack on Kirkuk and its surrounding areas this morning, October 16, 2017,” the Peshmerga General Command said in a statement Monday. “This attack is a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan.”
The Peshmerga noted that the invasion of Kirkuk “was launched by American weapons, armored vehicles, tanks and other coalition weapons. These American weapons have been given to the Iraqi army and Hashd under the name of the war on ISIS. This was done at a time when the Peshmerga, also in the fight against ISIS, were not given necessary weapons to defend themselves against the terrorists.”
President Trump announced on Friday that the U.S. Treasury would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization on Friday, then announced that “many people” were talking about this designation on Twitter, before returning to commenting on two-time failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Republicans issued near-unanimous praise for the move.
“The president has to do something,” Najmaldin Karim, provincial governor of Kirkuk, told Breitbart News this weekend. “If nothing is done, this will be like the Balkans.”
He has yet to address the Kirkuk situation.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also failed to discuss the matter, despite making two separate television appearances this weekend. Tillerson immediately spoke out against the September 25 independence referendum, claiming the non-binding vote “lack[ed] legitimacy.”
The Associated Press notes that Iraqi soldiers and Iran-backed militias had “moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as its airport and an important military base,” by Monday afternoon, placing the estimates of displaced civilians at “thousands” in the few hours since the raid. Peshmerga officials stated that Iraqi fighters had “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” to the AP, without providing a count.