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Iraqi Army Moves Against Kurdish Oil Assets

Kurdistan Map

Just a few weeks after a referendum that purported to declare Kurdish independence from Iraq, the Iraqi Army has begun an assault aimed at capturing the region that provides the economic lifeblood to Iraqi Kurdistan:

KIRKUK, Iraq — Iraqi state television said early Monday that Iraqi forces had begun an operation to seize the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields, despite weeks of urgent efforts by the United States to keep tensions between its allies from boiling over into another war in the Middle East.

In a brief statement released to the state-run network, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, ordered troops to impose security in the area “in cooperation with the people of Kirkuk and the pesh merga,” or Kurdish fighters.

State-run TV said the initial assault by Iraqi troops, counterterrorism forces and federal police did not encounter resistance as they sought to reclaim areas seized by Kurdish forces in 2014. But there were unconfirmed reports of clashes with the pesh merga, who maintain defensive lines around Kirkuk and the oil fields.

Military sources also reported exchanges of artillery fire, but those reports could not be confirmed.

The Iraqi military operation would be the first use of military force by the government in Baghdad in response to an independence vote last month by the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Both the Iraqi Army and the pesh merga have been trained and equipped by the United States as part of the American-led coalition battling Islamic State militants in the country. But the other major players in the conflict — the Shiite militias that make up a considerable amount of Iraq’s fighting strength — have largely been trained and supported by Iran.

In Washington, the Pentagon urged “all actors” in the region to focus on battling Islamic State militants and to avoid provoking disputes among Iraqis, Reuters reported.

It was unclear whether American troops were in the area Monday morning. A spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There was no immediate response from the American Embassy in Baghdad.

The United States has provided intelligence, special operations forces, weapons, airstrikes and artillery to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State militants in the area, and have similarly backed Kurdish forces in that fight.

Kurdish government leaders and military commanders had vowed to fight any attempt by Iraqi forces to reclaim control of the Kirkuk area, which was captured by Kurdish forces after Iraqi troops fled an assault by Islamic State militants in 2014.

Hemin Hawrami, a spokesman for the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, wrote on Twitter that pesh merga soldiers had destroyed four government Humvees and had twice repelled a government attack in a district south of Kirkuk. Those statements could not be confirmed.

In one tweet, Mr. Hawrami accused Mr. Abadi of using military force “to settle political issues.”

In reports this morning, Iraqi forces are already claiming success in seizing important oil and gas facilities:

KIRKUK, Iraq — Hours after moving to reclaim control of the northern city of Kirkuk, Iraqi government forces said Monday that they had reached the outskirts of the city, seizing oil fields and other important sites from Kurdish forces that had held the territory since 2014.

The quick advance pitted one American-trained military force against another. Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are both part of the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Divisions within the Kurdish command broke into the open, with officials from a Kurdish opposition party saying that its fighters had agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi forces even as other forces continued to battle.

Iraqi commanders ordered the operation after a contentious independence vote on Sept. 25 in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Baghdad, Washington and most all international leaders condemned the referendum.

Iraq’s regional Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, spearheaded the referendum and included areas whose legal status is constitutionally fraught, among them Kirkuk Province and its oil fields. Kurdish security forces loyal to his main political rival control many of the strategic points in Kirkuk, and in recent days emissaries from Baghdad had worked to negotiate their withdrawal.

Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad, said all American forces in the area were watching the situation, but were out of the fighting. He said force protection measures had been imposed to ensure their safety.

“We are monitoring the situation closely and strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions,” Colonel Dillon said. “We opposed violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability.”

Military commanders in Baghdad said their troops had taken control of an industrial district on the western edge of Kirkuk, as well as a power plant and refinery adjacent to the oil fields outside the city. The military command also said government forces had secured control of a military airport west of the city.

Among the sites the Iraqi forces claimed was a military base known as K-1, northwest of Kirkuk. Iraqi officers interviewed near the base on Sunday said that American forces had used the facility in the past.

K-1 was the main military base in Kirkuk Province for Iraqi government troops when they abandoned their weapons and fled an assault by Islamic State militants.

On Monday, a Kurdish commander from the governing political party in the Kurdistan region said his forces had mounted a counterattack about 15 miles west of the city. He said reinforcements with “sophisticated weapons” had arrived to support Kurdish fighters in the area.

“They are preparing to liberate the area” from Iraqi forces, said the commander, Gen. Mohammed Raiger.

A statement released by the Kurdistan Region Security Council said pesh merga fighters had destroyed five American-supplied Humvees used by Iraqi forces, and would continue to resist them.

“This was unprovoked attack,” the statement said of the government military advance. The council is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or K.D.P., led by Mr. Barzani, the region’s president.

But a leader of a rival Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., said the party had agreed to vacate its military positions and hand them over to government forces early Monday morning. Wista Raool, commander of P.U.K. pesh merga forces south of Kirkuk, said the party sought to return the oil fields to the central government.

Mr. Raool accused Mr. Barzani and his party of “stealing” the oil from the central government. Many members of the P.U.K., which maintains its own pesh merga force, opposed the referendum vote because it was spearheaded by Mr. Barzani.

Iraqi military commanders said fighting broke out early Monday between advancing government forces and pesh merga fighters from Mr. Barzani’s faction, just as the P.U.K. forces were handing over their positions. The commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.

Mr. Barzani’s supporters had vowed to fight any attempt by Iraqi forces to reclaim control of the Kirkuk area, which was captured by Kurdish forces after Iraqi troops fled an assault by Islamic State militants in 2014.

The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has demanded that Kurdish leaders surrender control of Kirkuk city and Kirkuk Province, the oil fields, and other disputed areas that Kurds took over amid the power vacuum. He repeatedly said in recent days that his government had no plans to attack Kurdish forces defending the Kirkuk area.

In a statement released Monday, Mr. Abadi said he had warned Kurdish leaders that the referendum would compel Baghdad to reclaim disputed areas, including Kirkuk and its oil fields. He said Mr. Barzani’s party was motivated by “personal and partisan interests.”

This all began, of course, late last month when Iraqi Kurds purported to vote overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that the central government in Baghdad made clear was not authorized under the Iraqi Constitution and which no nation of consequence has recognized. Shortly after the vote, politicians and other leaders in Iraq called on the Prime Minister to deploy troops to the region to make clear that the central government would not allow secession or any other move beyond the current semi-autonomous status the Kurds currerntly enjoy inside Iraq. Additionally, the government in Baghdad has been joined in its opposition to Kurdish independence by both Iran and Turkey, which both have significant Kurdish populations of their own that they are obviously concerned might be inspired by what is happening inside Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, both Iran and Turkey have not ruled out the possibility of crossing into Iraq to combat Kurdish rebels, with or without the permission of the Iraqi government. Finally, even the United States, which has allied itself with the Kurds as well as Iraq in the ongoing fight against ISIS is refusing to recognize the validity of the independence referendum and appears to have been working behind the scenes in an effort to avoid a conflict inside Iraq that would deter both forces from concentrating on the fight against ISIS. Based on these reports, that effort appears to have failed.

Losing Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields and other energy assets could prove devastating to the future viability of the Kurds efforts in Iraq. As it stands, there are very few other economically viable areas in the region and certainly, none that would provide the kind of revenue that the oil fields do even in today’s market, where oil prices are far below their peaks and unlikely to rise further. No doubt victory for the Iraqi Army wouldn’t be the end of the battle, though. Instead, this would seem likely to throw the entire region into a civil war that could last for years and which could end up bringing both Turkey and Iran into the fight on the side of Iran. Meanwhile, the United States is left sitting in the middle watching as two purported allies fight each other and weaken the effort against ISIS in the process.

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    This is not going to end well for us, no matter which side “wins”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Mikey says:

    The bloody and destructive legacy of our misbegotten 2003 war in Iraq continues.

    This is very disturbing:

    Both the Iraqi Army and the pesh merga have been trained and equipped by the United States as part of the American-led coalition battling Islamic State militants in the country…It was unclear whether American troops were in the area Monday morning.

    I would hope any American trainers or advisers would have known this was coming and gotten far away.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  3. Franklin says:

    The only solution I can think of is to send more weapons to whoever we currently want to win. That always works, and we never regret it in the long term!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  4. CET says:

    Remind me – why are we against a brokered division of Iraq into a couple of separate countries? I get that partition has its drawbacks (A Kurdish state will piss off Turkey, the Shiite partition will become an Iranian client, etc), I’d be curious if ‘people who know’ have determined that those outcomes are worse than having Iraq continue to be a battleground for the big Sunni/Shiite/Kurd free-for-all in the Middle East, or if we’re just against it because we’ve always been against it….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Because Iraq is a sovereign state and it’s not up to us to cut it up like an apple pie? And Turkey being opposed to an independent Kurdistan has the potential to be a serious ongoing problem, especially with Erdogan in power.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @CET: I could be wrong about this, but as I recall, division into 3 separate geographic and ethno-religious states was one of the options that was rejected by the group charged with forming whatever government or governments the area currently identified as Iraq would have.

    Maybe the best choice would have been to allow a functioning, if oppressive, government continue to maintain its country instead of starting a war of insurrection for the purpose of destabilizing the entire region, but what would I know; I don’t even think that America needs to be made great again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. JohnMcC says:

    Pottery Barn rules. We are going to be paying for the GWBush administration’s stupidity for a long long time.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. DrDaveT says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Because Iraq is a sovereign state and it’s not up to us to cut it up like an apple pie?

    Not after we conquered it and occupied it. As@JohnMcC notes, “you break it, you bought it”. The fact that we’ve abdicated on that responsibility doesn’t change the facts.

    The existing boundaries of Iraq are a fiction written by the Western powers to begin with. Syria has lost any right to a say in what they should be. That leaves Turkey to be virulently opposed to any kind of Kurdish autonomy, because they know how fragile their rule is (especially under Erdogan’s Islamist regime) in the Kurdish-majority portions of Turkey. There is no good solution here, but some are worse than others.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Because Iraq is a sovereign state and it’s not up to us to cut it up like an apple pie?

    At this point, what is Iraq?

    Seriously — it only exists because we prop it up and train its army and fight against ISIS for it. Iraq isn’t a sovereign state, it’s a puppet state.

    We walked away once when we were asked to, and Iraq descended into chaos, we got ISIS as a result, and the problems of ISIS were not contained within the borders of Iraq. We’re not going to do so again, so whether you like it or not, we are shaping the Iraqi government.

    When people in that region (and others) have gotten self-determination, they have almost invariably broken and sorted themselves along ethnic and religious lines. Fledgling multiethnic democracies have a terrible track record. If Czechoslovakia cannot stay together, what hope do these people have?

    If we are now shaping the government of Iraq, and we are, we should be doing so as regents acting in the best interests of all the people living in Iraq. Anticipate the most obvious problems (nationalism pulling the country apart) and smoothing the path: define autonomous states with a federal government that delegates a lot of authority to the states, and define a path to independence if they choose it, so the results are less chaotic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Iraq descended into chaos when we invaded without a plan – once Saddam Hussein was deposed, society collapsed while we huddled in the Green Zone and Bush waited for the Iraqi George Washington to step forward – seriously one of his stupider comments.

    We’ve lied to ourselves about Iraq for years and further lying isn’t going to result in better results. We’ve always claimed to be acting in the best interests of Iraqis and it’s a little late in the game for us to expect that Iraqis will be impressed with yet more examples of our oh-so-wonderful good intentions. Of course they turned to ethnic and family ties for protection – what other option was feasible?

    “No, seriously, this time we’ll get it right!” is not very persuasive.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. CET says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Because Iraq is a sovereign state and it’s not up to us to cut it up like an apple pie?

    @DrDaveT, @Gustopher, and @JohnMcC all raise good points. I wanted add another one:

    It appears as though the Kurds have decided to secede. I can think of plenty of reason why they should be allowed to, but the only two reason against that come to mind are (1) deciding who gets which oil fields, and (2) it’ll piss off Turkey and Iran. I think (2) is a feature rather than a bug*, and having some kind of brokered agreement (in which a 3rd party mediates a final border between Iraq and Kurdistan) seems like a better option than just letting the Kurds and Baghdad fight it out.

    *Yea, I know, the Turkish government is nominally our ally. Frankly, it’s past time to reconsider that arrangement. I’m given to understand that we can’t expel them from NATO, but having a US-backed Kurdish state on their eastern flank might provide a little bit of leverage to help keep Erdogan and the AKP in line…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. SC_Birdflyte says:

    There are no good choices. Either Iraq fragments along ethnic or religious lines, or a united Iraq becomes an Iranian client for the foreseeable future. We can thank Winston Churchill for setting up a shaky Iraq and screwing the Kurds out of their rights of self-determination after World War I.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Gustopher says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    We’ve lied to ourselves about Iraq for years and further lying isn’t going to result in better results. We’ve always claimed to be acting in the best interests of Iraqis and it’s a little late in the game for us to expect that Iraqis will be impressed with yet more examples of our oh-so-wonderful good intentions. Of course they turned to ethnic and family ties for protection – what other option was feasible?

    I’m generally of the belief that the US should be a little less active in the world, and we should take a more hands off approach. But, our hands are already pretty involved here, and how we disentangle ourselves is going to have a huge impact.

    Self-determination is a great thing, and most if not all groups want it, and it usually starts with wanting to be an ethnic and religious majority. We see this in the US (people claim that we are a white, Christian nation, even though we were explicitly founded to not impose a religion, and our notion of white is an amazingly multinational), and we see it abroad (secession movements in Spain, the split of Czechoslovakia, the Kurds, etc.

    We cannot solve all the problems in the region — we’ve been failing at nation building since the reconstruction in the post civil war era — but we can put the structures in place so the people in the region have a decent chance of solving their own problems. If we arm and train both sides of an ethnic conflict so they can help us fight ISIS, then we have an obligation to help keep them from turning the weapons on each other.

    Hands off isn’t an option when our hands are already there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. onche says:

    you should know, these are all conspiracies to get the biggest reserves of helium gas, this is the source: Gas Helium

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Franklin says:

    @onche: I see mention of Qatar in that link, but not Iraq.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0