Baghdad and Kurdish leaders have ordered the removal of Iran-backed Shiite militias from Kirkuk and the return of the oil-rich city to the control of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Rudaw reported Thursday.
The move is a testament to the thaw in relations between the Iraqi government and the Kurds following clashes over the Kurdish independence referendum in October 2017.
With the support of the Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMF/U), an umbrella organization of mainly Iran-allied Shiite militias, the Iraqi government pushed the KRG out of Kirkuk in retaliation for holding a non-binding referendum on Kurdish sovereignty overwhelmingly approved by the Kurds in October 2017.
The PMF, also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, has reportedly agreed to leave the city.
Although various human rights groups have accused the Shiite militias of atrocities against civilians and other war crimes, Baghdad has legally integrated the PMF, known as Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic, into the Iraqi armed forces.
Shakhawan Abdulla, a member of the Kirkuk Situation Normalization Committee, told Rudaw that Baghdad and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-controlled KRG agreed to push the PMF out of Kirkuk, adding that the deal will “soon take effect to clear Kirkuk from all the multiple forces present in the city.”
“The Hashd al-Shaabi groups are ready to help normalize the situation of Kirkuk and for the KDP to return,” he added, noting that the withdrawal of the PMF would be gradual.
Rawand Mala Mahmood, an official with Iraq’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party in Kirkuk, confirmed to Rudaw that “some agreements have been reached” over the city between the KRG and Baghdad.
“We have asked for Kirkuk to be treated with according to the constitution,” he added, suggesting that the oil-rich city is currently “occupied” by the PMF.
The U.S. military has praised the PMF for its support in decimating the Sunni Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) so-called caliphate in Iraq.
Iraq’s newly elected Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, who reportedly rejects American and Iranian influence in the country, has expressed a desire to end hostilities against the Kurds. Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds intensified following the independence referendum in 2017.
Iran, Turkey, and Syria oppose Kurdish independence efforts in neighboring Iraq, citing fears that it will induce separatism among their respective Kurdish populations.
Iran maintains a significant level of influence over Shiite-led Baghdad.
According to the Pentagon’s office of the inspector general (OIG), the PMF presents a threat to the more than 5,000 American troops deployed to Iraq.
Kirkuk, a region rich with natural resources, including gas and oil, lies outside the borders of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and is claimed by both Baghdad and the KRG.