Advancing Iraqi troops, backed by Iran-allied Shiite militias, are reportedly coercing “thousands” of residents to abandon the Kurdish-held multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, a testament to the ongoing altercations triggered by Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum last month.
“Thousands of cars are filling the roads leading out of [Kurdish-controlled] Kirkuk and the numbers are increasing. There is a lot of fear in the city [due to] the [Shiite militia-backed] Iraqi army’s advance,” observed Al Jazeera.
The United Nations expressed little concern, with Secretary-General spokesman Stéphane Dujarric stating on Tuesday that “there has been no major displacement of civilians since yesterday’s advances by the Iraqi military in Kirkuk.” Noting that he could not verify any exact number of people fleeing, he cited the U.N. Migration Agency as estimating 61,000 people had fled the city since late Sunday. Most, he added, are moving deeper into Kurdish-held territory.
In a report filed from Baghdad and citing Kurdish government officials, the Associated Press asserts that most of those fleeing are Kurds.
The province of Kirkuk, described by Al Jazeera as “a multi-ethnic city, home to about a million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians,” lies outside the border of the northern Iraq’s autonomous KRG region. Kurds claimed the area their own after they pushed ISIS out.
In Kirkuk, the winners of the friction sparked by the September 25 independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) appear to be ISIS and a Baghdad-sanctioned umbrella organization for mainly Iran-allied Shiite militias. Both have been linked to U.S. military casualties.
The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) appears to be capitalizing on the friction between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, sparked by the September 25 independence referendum.
Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Shiite militia group — the Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMF/PMU) or Hashd al-Shaabi — has declared that they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking Kirkuk areas from the Kurds.
Furthermore, the PMU’s ally “the Iraqi army said it has seized control of the city’s airport, in addition to an oil field, the strategic K1 military base and the Taza Khormatu district southeast of Kirkuk,” adds Al Jazeera.
Prior to the independence referendum that fractured the anti-ISIS Iraqi coalition, the U.S.-backed alliance managed to retake most of the territory the terrorist group held at its peak, which ultimately prevented them from expanding further.
In opposing the independence vote, the United States and other countries warned that the vote would distract the international efforts against ISIS at a time when the group was close to defeat.
Now, Iraqi Kurdistan independence-linked animosity between the Kurds, the Iraqi army, and the Shiite militias, is allowing ISIS to resurface in the region while their enemies are too busy fighting one another.
Nevertheless, it appears that many Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, often described by the U.S. military as some of the most effective fighters in the region, are heeding the calls from the KRG and the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk to fight and defend the city.
“Hundreds of armed Kurdish residents were taking up positions inside the city, anticipating an attack,” reports Al Jazeera.
Peshmerga troops in and around Kirkuk “have vowed to defend it to the last man,” reports Al Jazeera, signaling the KRG’s commitment to keeping control of Kirkuk.
Even before the referendum vote, the Peshmerga and Shiite militias clashed for control of territory. Now that the Kurds approved independence, the confrontations are expected to intensify.
In a statement, Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi argued that Baghdad’s offensive into Kirkuk was only intended at protecting national unity.
“It is my constitutional duty to work for the benefit of the citizens, and to protect our national unity that came under threat of fragmentation as a result of the referendum that was organized by the Kurdish region,” declared PM Abadi.
“The referendum came at a time where the country is fighting against terrorism that has come in the form of ISIL. We tried to urge [the Kurds] not to violate the constitution and to focus on fighting ISIL, but they did not listen … They chose their personal interests over Iraq’s interests,” he added.
Iraqi troops are trying to pressure Peshmerga troops to relinquish Kirkuk to the control of Baghdad, which assured the residents of the oil-rich city that their safety was the Iraqi government’s top priority.
Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) reportedly vowed that the ”Peshmerga will continue to defend Kurdistan, its people, and interests,” later adding, ”This was an unprovoked attack following days of Iraqi military deployments to Kurdistan’s borders.”
The KRG has stood strong, refusing to heed the demands of Baghdad, Iran, and Turkey despite their threats of a coordinated military response, among other forms of retaliation.