The BBC reported “fierce clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi troops north of Kirkuk city” on Friday, indicating the Iraqi offensive is proceeding well beyond its originally stated goal of preventing independence-minded Kurds from absorbing Kirkuk and its oil fields into a prospective new state.
“A BBC correspondent at the scene said there had been rocket, artillery and machine-gun fire in Alton Kupri. The district is the last area in Kirkuk province still held by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters,” the report stated.
The BBC’s correspondent, Richard Galpin, described a “major outbreak of fighting” involving a large number of troops and military vehicles. The Associated Press adds an eyewitness account of about 50 armored vehicles deploying to the Kurdish side of the front.
The Iraqi army later claimed to have taken control of Alton Kupri, which is only 30 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.
Reuters described a “three-hour battle” between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and “a force made up of U.S-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service units, Federal Police and Iranian-backed fighters known as Popular Mobilization [Units].”
Machine guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades were used during the battle, which appears to be the most sustained effort by the Peshmerga to date to repel the advance of Iraqi troops and Iran-backed militia.
In a hopeful sign, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday asked the Iraqi government to protect Kurds in northern Iraq. Reuters calls it “a rare political intervention by a figure whose words have the force of law for most of Iraq’s Shi‘ite majority.”
The United Nations has also expressed concern with “reports of forced displacement and destruction of Kurdish homes and businesses.” Reuters notes that one Kurdish protester was killed and six others wounded when Iraqi security forces intervened in a protest against the military occupation of Khanaqin, on the border between Iran and Iraq.
The Financial Times on Thursday reported feelings of fear and anger among Iraqi Kurds after their forces were driven out of Kirkuk, with some talking about seeking revenge even if their government decides not to fight for independence. There was considerable anger in the Kirkuk region against the Kurdish political leadership because they did not fight harder for independence or, in some cases, allegedly undermined independence by making deals with Baghdad and Tehran.
One Peshmerga fighter worried that the Iraqi army and Shiite militia will march on Erbil. “They want to burn our people’s homes and rape their wives and daughters,” he said.
Writing at The American Interest, Jonathan Spyer compares Kirkuk in 2017 to Beirut in 2008, another situation where “a sudden, forceful move by an Iranian client swiftly (and, it seems, permanently) reset the balance of power, demonstrating to the pro-Western element that it was subordinate and that further resistance would be fruitless.”
Spyer notes that both Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi PMU militia are clients of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, further recalling how the Shiite militia in Iraq were raised after Ayatollah al-Sistani issued a fatwa against advancing Islamic State forces. Pro-Iranian commanders with ties to the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards were involved in the Kirkuk operation, as was Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.
Their strategy included a sudden and devastating retreat by Kurdish forces loyal to the opposition PUK party, which is lukewarm at best on Kurdish independence and has long dealt with Tehran. As Spyer describes the situation, Iran called upon relationships carefully cultivated with both the Iraqi Shiites and key Kurdish groups over a span of decades, deftly short-circuiting a Kurdish independence push that would have interfered with Iran’s regional ambitions.
“It is a black day for the Kurds, from every point of view. The fall of Kirkuk confirms the extent to which Iraq today is an Iranian-controlled satrapy. And it vividly demonstrates the currently unrivaled efficacy of the Iranian methods of revolutionary and political warfare, as practiced by IRGC throughout the Arab world,” Spyer writes.
In a piece published by the Kurdish news network Rudaw, Missouri State University professor David Romano observes that it usually takes weeks of preparation to move forces into potential conflict with a fortified adversary, but the Iraqi military and Shiite militias rolled into Kirkuk sitting on top of their tanks, confident no serious resistance would be offered by the Kurds who just won a grueling years-long battle against the inhuman evil of the Islamic State. In other words, they knew the fix was in, arranged through backroom deals between the Kurdish opposition party and Iran.
Romano reports angry Kurdish civilians throwing rocks at retreating Peshmerga units and video of brave fighters loyal to the opposition PUK party “weeping at the orders their superiors had given them.” Meanwhile, the governing KDP party in Erbil was getting a checkmate message from Baghdad, prompting them to abandon the battle for independence as a lost cause. Allies who might have stood behind the Kurds and insisted Baghdad negotiate with them, including the United States, decided there was no point in throwing their weight behind a lost cause, further damaging fragile Iraq and possibly touching off several regional diplomatic crises for nothing.
Although reluctant to criticize the Kurds too harshly at this difficult moment, Romano is obliged to fault the Kurdish government for getting taken so completely by surprise when Baghdad and Tehran made their move. “If Iraqi Kurds are to look to the future, they might start with introspection and more serious reforms and consolidation of their political parties, institutions and regional government in general,” he advises.
The strongest regional voice in the Kurds’ corner is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis clearly see the value of having an ally that lives in every nation Israel can expect trouble from: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. But Israeli officials are also striving to express sincere worries about oppression of the Iraqi Kurds and maybe something even worse than that.
“The issue at present is … to prevent an attack on the Kurds, extermination of the Kurds and any harm to them, their autonomy and region, something that Turkey and Iran and internal Shi‘ite and other powers in Iraq and part of the Iraqi government want,” said Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz in a radio interview on Friday, as quoted by Reuters.
“The prime minister is certainly engaging the United States, Russia, Germany and France to stop the Kurds from being harmed,” Katz added. Another Israeli official quoted by Reuters spoke up for the Kurds as “a deeply pro-Western people who deserve support.”
Romano concludes his Rudaw op-ed by wondering just how magnanimous Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi plans to be in victory. The intensity of fighting north of Kirkuk, and how close al-Abadi’s forces push to Erbil, will provide important clues over the next few days.