Iraqi Army Moves Against Kurdish Oil Assets
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.