Kirkuk and its vast oil fields are now officially back under Iraqi control after years of illegal rule, first by the illegitimate ISIS terror group and since 2014 by unauthorised Kurdish militants. As Kirkuk falls outside of the constitutionally designated autonomous Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, there was never any legitimacy for the Kurdish regime’s rule.
Video has emerged of Iraqi troops entering the city centre where they faced no resistance from fleeing Kurdish Peshmerga militants.
Another video shows local Iraqis welcoming the troops as well as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who have aided Iraqi regulars throughout the long battle against ISIS.
As I reported yesterday in the The Duran, this is significant as the majority Sunni population of Kirkuk has welcomed both a majority Shi’a Iraqi army as well as entirely Shi’a PMF forces:
“The Iraqi government claims to now be in full control of Kirkuk after taking the city centre and surrounding areas. Hours ago, Iraqi forces re-established control over the main city administration building as Kurdish Peshmerga have begun a mass retreat.
Iraq’s position, which is in keeping with Iraqi and international laws, is that troops were sent in to re-establish formal control over a city that was previously occupied by ISIS, and since around 2014, has been partly in the hands of Kurdish militants and self-proclaimed political leaders. Crucially, Kirkuk falls outside of areas designated as autonomous Kurdish regions, even though the Kurdish regime in Erbil attempted to claim Kirkuk by placing it on the map of a would be Kurdish statelet, as part of the 25 September secession referendum. This provocative move was among Iraq’s gravest grievance against Erbil during the course of the referendum.
Earlier, Kurdish media released a statement from the Peshmerga stating that Iraq will pay a “heavy price” for what it described as a “flagrant declaration of war”. However, it is theoretically impossible for Iraq to declare war on forces whose very existence in Iraq is conditional upon the previously agreed autonomous status for Kurdish areas, in accordance with the 2005 Iraqi constitution. These areas and in the case of Kirkuk, an important city beyond, have been thrown into chaos due to the unilateral secessionist referendum which was boycotted by Arabs and Turkomen who overwhelmingly support Baghdad.
Prior to the 25 September referendum, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed levels of regional autonomy that are unique in the context not only of the Middle East, but of most of the world. Even many Kurdish sympathisers are beginning to blame Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani for overplaying his hand by holding a provocative referendum that was condemned by every major world and regional power with the notable exception of Israel.
With Peshmerga forces rapidly retreating and with no real chance for Israel to supply Iraqi Kurds without a massive military operation that would incur the wrath of the wider region, including and especially Turkey, the Kurds in Iraq are now effectively as materially isolated as Turkish President Erdogan warned that they would be, should they continue their provocative post-referendum stance.
The only other conceivable scenario is for the US to supply Iraqi Kurds from their bases in Iraq. This however would mean that the US would effectively be declaring war on Iraq. As I previously discussed, there is every possibility that the US is covertly hoping that a Kurdish insurrection in Iraq provokes a wider conflict that the ISIS insurgency would effectively draw Iran deeper into Iraq, making Iranian forces subject to attacks from US proxies or even US forces themselves. There is little doubt in my mind that such a scenario has already been put into action. However, today’s events mean that these scheme may have failed before it even had a chance to be fully realised.
Given how rapidly Iraqi troops have been advancing, taking seemingly all of Kirkuk after a surge which begun approximately 24 hours ago, even a superpower as brazen as the US is running out of options. This is especially true as the Turkish President has yet again reiterated his commitment to secure northern Iraq with the cooperation of Baghdad, a promise whose seriousness is only enhanced by the fact that recent reports have indicated the presence of PKK activity in Kurdish regions of Iraq.
Unless the US wars to destroy what remains of its relationship with Baghdad while also fighting both Turkey and Iran, there are fewer and fewer options for America’s would-be proxy war against Iran.
After years of division, Iraq is unifying around support for the operations in Kirkuk and so too is the region ever more united behind the legal Iraqi position. What’s more is that words like “war” and “aggression” and worse yet, talk of retaliation, is only coming out of Kurdish propaganda outlets. Iraq continues to calmly state that it is merely re-establishing control of an Iraqi city. Iraq’s Prime Minister has further stated that troops have been told not to fire upon Kurdish Peshmerga militants, although of course they have and apparently are exercising the right to fight back in instances when Peshmerga are not in full retreat.
As was the case in respect of the secession referendum, both Russia and the US have stated that they condemn all violence, but that both view the recent clashes as an unfortunate incident rather than a larger or more profound existential crisis. To put it another way, both the Russian Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State are being highly diplomatic. In Russia’s case, this is standard procedure. In respect of the United States, I personally suspect it is a matter of keeping one’s cards close to one’s chest.
The Kurdish regime in Erbil as well as its known and supine puppeteers have seemingly bitten off more than they can chew. Furthermore, with Peshmerga forces retreating en masse, reports from recent years, stating that the Peshmerga reached covert agreements with ISIS to relinquish control of certain parts of northern Iraq, rather than engaging one another on the battlefield, now seem eerily believable. In trying to create a clean break from Iraq, the Kurdish regime is instead airing some very dirty laundry, all while taking major steps back from its previously comfortable autonomous status quo which is now in jeopardy due to the actions of Masoud Barzani”.
Now that international observers have confirmed Iraq has regained full control of the region, what is most apparent is the fragmented nature of the Kurdish militias. While most Kurdish fighters retreated or put up no resistance, others were goaded into fighting by angry local Kurds. This effectively shatters the myth of a united Kurdish regime in Iraq and has exposed the decades long political divisions among Iraqi Kurds as being as fractious today as they have been in the past.
With Turkey and Iran once again closing airspace over Kurdish regions of Iraq, creating a de-facto no-fly-zone with the permission of Baghdad, Russia has stated that it will evacuate its consulate in the de-facto Kurdish capital of Erbil, due to safety concerns.
Iraqi troops have further advanced to Sinjar, reclaiming another strategically important location from Kurdish forces who again, did not put up any significant fight.
Iraq’s advances represent a watershed moment in national unity as most factions in the country have united behind the common Iraq flag against an overzealous Kurdish regime led by the secessionist Masoud Barzani. This has been countered by the fractious nature of Kurdish parties, in spite of a propaganda campaign from Kurdish media which seeks to insinuate a sectarian conflict, blaming Iran and its Shi’a allies for an ‘attack’ on Kurds. This is effectively the opposite of what is actually occurring, but this narrative does fit the agenda of many in the US who seek to pivot their Middle Eastern strategy from using jihadist proxies to weaken Arab countries in the region (especially those allied with Iran) to one which seeks to use Kurdish proxies to do the same.
This however presents a unique set of problems for the US, as I explored in a previous piece, reproduced below:
“Statements coming from the Kurdish regime in Northern Iraq, which appear to reject recent overtures made by Iraq to negotiate a restoration of the automatons status quo in Kurdish regions in North Iraq, indicate that the Kurds are not acting alone in their provocations against Baghdad.
The following statements were Tweeted from Kurdish leaders in the aftermath of a recent visit of Iraq’s Parliamentary Speaker to Kurdish regions, which constituted Baghdad’s sincere attempt to de-escalate tensions. These statements appear to negate the atmosphere which as of last week, was tense but seemingly in the midst of a partial thaw.
There will not be any unilateral negotiation with Baghdad by either PUK or KDP. If there be any negotiation with Baghdad it will be a joint delegation representing all Kurdistan parties. KDP/PUK reject any demands to nullify the referendum results. Refuse preconditions
The Meeting in Dukan between KDP/ PUK ended. Good news on reiterating our national unity in the face of all pressure. Our readiness to reach peaceful resolution for current standoff in all area. Rejecting military option, but ready to defend.
Over the last 48 hours, events have intensified in northern Iraq, as Iraqi forces have started to re-establish control over the city of Kirkuk, which was unilaterally claimed as part of a would-be Kurdish state by the regime in Erbil, during the unilateral secession referendum held on the 25th of September, 2017.
Iraq’s positions is that any act of Kurdish secession is illegal and furthermore, a serious security threat to the Iraqi state and wider region. Furthermore, Iraq will never recognise Kirkuk as part of a Kurdish autonomous region, nor will the local Arab and Turkomen populations of Kirkuk who have all rallied behind Iraq, in a unique display of inter-sect (Sunni and Shi’a) and inter-ethnic unity in Iraq.
As Turkish President Erdogan has correctly stated; with Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus, all in opposition to Kurdish secession in northern Iraq, there is simply no way for a would-be Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq to logistically nor economically survive. With Iran, Turkey and Iraq threatening to embargo and effectively besiege such an entity, were it to be unilaterally proclaimed, the only hope for such a so-called “Kurdistan” would be if it had external support from a non-bordering state.
A quick examination of the states technically capable of and politically willing to supply such a Kurdish entity, while overcoming the military might of Iran and Turkey, quickly points to only one power. This is the United States. Both in terms of its technical might and its track record of defying all norms of diplomatic relations, Washington is uniquely placed to aid a would-be Kurdistan built on Iraqi soil, in defiance of the entire region, except for Israel, which would almost certainly continue to provide support for Iraqi Kurds, especially if doing so along with the US. Russia and China by contrast, have firmly committed themselves to the territorial unity of Iraq.
Even by American standards, Washington is caught between a rock and a hard place in respect of a would be Kurdish entity in Iraq. On the one hand, if the United States were to defy Baghdad, it would mean that Iraq would become ever more detached from the already pessimistic nature of its cooperation with the United States. Simultaneous to this, Baghdad would almost certainly move even closer to Iran in terms of security cooperation, economic cooperation and a broader geo-political alignment.
The danger is that, with Iraq still recovering from years of invasion, occupation and terrorism, that radical voices, such as that of the apparently influential, though unhinged Nikki Haley, would press for a US intervention on behalf of Israeli geo-political ambitions, in order to bolster Kurds in Iraq. This would constitute a new stage of the ongoing proxy war against Iran and one which would increasingly and inevitably also grow into a conflict with Turkey, in spite of Turkey’s continued, however grudging NATO membership.
As I wrote yesterday in The Duran:
“Iraq’s present geo-political position is that of the only country in the world where the two most influential countries inside its borders are the United States and Iran. To put this in perspective, imagine a country where the two most influential powers, each with its own troops working with various factions of such a state’s army, were Japan and North Korea.
But this is the awkward reality of modern Iraq, a country whose armed forces coordinate airstrikes with the USA and where in other parts of the country, on the same day, members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, train Iraqi troops and Popular Mobilization Units to fight terrorism. What’s more is that Iraq has recently approached Iran to sign a wide ranging military security pact. All the while, the US maintains multiple military bases in Iraq, in addition to an embassy in Baghdad that is better described as a military fortress.
If the US was intent on ‘containing’ Iran at all costs or even maintain a power in the Middle East with a track record of not being afraid of Iran, the US could have simply continued to fund and arm Saddam Hussein. In rejecting Saddam and engaging in illegal regime change, the US severely underestimated the potential of a post-Ba’athist Iraq not to devolve into a battle ground of identity politics, one in which sheer mathematics would dictate more pro-Iranian factions than any other.
Now, the US is stuck in the rut that is contemporary Iraq. On the one hand, Iraq has been a major material investment for the US. This is one of the leading explanations for why the US condemned the recent Kurdish secession referendum in northern Iraq. Where Iraqi Kurds were once the go-to faction in Iraq for the US to undermine the old Ba’athist government and since 2003, a faction that the US exploited to promote a so-called ‘Iraqi success story’, today, the US wants to have its Kurdish cake and eat it too. In other words, while the US does not intend to publicly defame Iraqi Kurds, they also seek to preserve the unity of their investment called Iraq.
At least, this is what the US says in public, but privately, this may have already changed. Kurdish secessionists in Iraq decided to include the oil rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk on the map of a would-be Kurdish state, as part of the widely condemned secession referendum process. This has infuriated the Arab and Turkomen population of Kirkuk who see Kurds as attempting to annex a city which is not part of the existing autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
Over the last 24 hours, reports from Kirkuk, detailing intense fighting between the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia. have been flowing in, albeit under the radar due to the media focusing more acutely on Donald Trump’s anti-Iran speech. While most Arab sources describe the battles as being fought between Iraqi Troops and Peshmerga, Kurdish outlets speak of clashes between a “foreign backed Iraqi army” along with Shi’a forces versus Peshmerga.
Thus one sees that generally pro-western and clearly pro-Israel Kurdish writers are proliferating a narrative where a foreign power, meaning Iran, is backing Shi’a Iraqis in a fight against Kurds.
The clear intention is to send the world a false message the the current fights in Kirkuk are an Iranian proxy battle against ‘wholesome Iraqi Kurds’. In reality, when reading between the liens, even in Kurdish propaganda outlets, one realises that the majority Shi’a Iraq army, the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkomen of Kirkuk, are all united behind the Iraqi flag against the Kurdish flag. In this sense, a battle which Kurds are trying to paint as a proxy sectarian war, is actually a rare example of Iraqi unity between Arabs and Turkomen, Shi’a and Sunni.
Thus, one sees the blueprint as well as the folly of the US and Israel’s real proxy war against Iran. Having failed in Syria and Lebanon, Iraq is the place where anti-Iranian forces will continue and likely ramp up their long-term anti-Tehran proxy war.
Whereas ISIS failed to destroy Iraq and also failed to limit Iranian influence on Iraq, the Kurds in Iraq will likely be the next proxy force used to attempt and draw Iran into a new conflict in Iraq. In the coming weeks and months, the headlines in fake news outlets warning of an ‘Iran/Hezbollah plot to take over Syria’, will likely be replaced with stories of ‘Iranian terrorists committing atrocities against Iraqi Kurds’. Of course, the more this strategy fails on the battle field, the more absurd the fake news stories will get, just as fake stories about Syrian chemical weapons tend to appear every time Damascus scores a substantial victory against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The problem with the new plan for more proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, is that in the process, many Iraqi Arabs, as well as Iraqi Turkomen, may revive a pan-Iraqi identity in the process. Furthermore, if pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq begin fighting for the rights of Sunni Arabs and Turkomen against Kurds, it could actually help to reconcile Iraqi Sunnis with Iraqi Shi’as.
This is the real game-plan against Iran and while it is a dangerous one, it ultimately will not be an effective one. In many ways, it may even be less effective than the attempt to use ISIS and other Takfiri groups to draw Iran into a losing war in the Arab world. Here, the opposite has happened, Iran has worked with legal state partners to cooperate and ultimately secure victory against Takfiri jihadists.
When and if the conflicts in Iraq finally end, the only question remaining will be: What to do with the deeply unpopular US bases in Iraq? There are only two options:
1. Perpetual stalemate
2. A 1975 Vietnam style withdrawal
The United States plans to end Iranian power in Iraq, but it is becoming increasingly likely that Iraq will instead be the graveyard of US hegemony. In many ways, it already is”.
In this sense, the ongoing Battle of Kirkuk is already a test of Iraqi unity versus that of Kurdish forces. This combined with Kurdish unwillingness to negotiate with a still surprisingly malleable Baghdad, would appear to indicate that the Kurds are biding their time and waiting to see if external support will come there way. Because of the vast American presence in Iraq, this ‘external’ support wouldn’t even be logistically difficult for the US, certainly not at first anyway.
Either the Kurds are once again hoping against hope and simply wishing for direct US assistance or they know something the rest of the world can only guess at. It is increasingly possible that the Kurds realise that contrary to US public statements in support of Iraq’s territorial unity, that a secret plan is being hatched to help Kurds secede from Iraq. In doing this, the US would also be hoping to drag Iran and Turkey into the Iraqi quagmire that was first authored by the US, Israel and Britain in 2003.
The entire scenario is dangerous beyond conventional belief, but it is looking ever more likely that such a storm may be brewing”.
While I still have few doubts that many in the US would like to use a Kurdish proxy war in Iraq to provoke and ideally weaken the Baghdad-Tehran alliance, the speed with which Iraqi troops have advanced in Kirkuk and nearby regions, indicates that such a strategy will not be as easy as some, including the overtly pro-Kurdish John McCain, may have suspected.
Deeply concerned by reports of military advances by Iraqi government forces against Kurdish positions near Kirkuk https://t.co/ckBDwkKyVf
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) October 16, 2017
The US is currently maintaining an officially neutral stance on the Iraq-Kurdish militant clashes, for fear of alienating either side. However, with the Kurdish militants apparently failing to put up any meaningful fight, many in the US ought to be questioning the sheer logistical reliability of their would-be proxies in the continued US regional struggle against Iran. In this sense, the victory of Iraq and its allies, is a further sign that however much the US invests in the Middle East, it is local powers that are best placed to shape their own future. This is exactly what the Iraqis have accomplished in Kirkuk and nearby regions.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.