According to local reports, Iraqi troops and Iraq’s volunteer Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have been engaged in fierce clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the northern city of Kirkuk. Iraqi troops have been driving deep into Kirkuk for just over a week, where they have successfully re-established control over key parts of the city.
Kirkuk has been largely controlled and occupied by Kurdish forces since 2014 as part of the ongoing northern Iraqi battle against ISIS terrorists. However, in March of 2017, the Kurds provocatively raised their flag over Kirkuk’s city hall, as well as nearby oil fields. In another provocative move, Kirkuk was included in the unapproved 25 September secession referendum, in spite of Kirkuk never being part of northern Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the troop movements into Kirkuk as a security operation to re-assert Iraq’s legal sovereignty over a key oil rich city. He stated that the move is simply about securing Kirkuk and went out of his way to say that Iraqi troops and PMFs have been ordered not to engage in clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga, but should instead try and secure their cooperation.
However, things have become heated over the last 24 hours. Iraqi social media uses have posted scenes of Peshmerga retreating as Iraqi forces and PMFs advance.
Meanwhile, official Iraqi state media has played down the extent of the clashes, while Kurdish outlets have already begun referring to the movement of Iraqi troops into Kirkuk o a “war”. The powerful Kurdish propaganda machine is firmly in anti-Iraqi overdrive.
— Peshmerga #KIRKUK (@KURDISTAN_ARMY) October 16, 2017
In spite of this, the biggest story is that which is not being reported from the ground. Iraq’s advance to re-claim Kirkuk has seen local Sunni Arabs rally to a common cause with Shi’a volunteer units who are bolstering the regular Iraqi Army (which itself is majority Shi’a). Furthermore, many local Turkomen who are ardently opposed to Kurdish secession in northern Iraq, have also largely rallied behind the Iraqi flag.
In an Iraq where even the battle against ISIS took on an internal sectarian character, the unity behind a common Iraqi flag among Sunni and Shi’a Arabs as well as Turkomen, is quite remarkable. It is an undeniably positive development in an otherwise dangerous situation.
While for the moment, the operation is being conducted purely by Iraqis, a report that there are PKK fighters in Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, will not go unnoticed in Turkey. While the Syrian Kurd YPG and Iranian Kurd PJAK, are known to have strong ties to the Turkish Kurd PKK, Iraq’s Peshmerga are traditionally unfriendly to the PKK, which is proscribed as a terrorist group both in Turkey and internationally.
However, as Kurds in northern Iraq continue to provoke both the majority of Arab Iraqis and local Iraqi Turkomen, many have feared that Iraq’s Kurds could form alliances with rival Kurdish groups from other states. While the Kurdish regime in northern Iraq denies this charge, there is mounting evidence that a Peshmerga-PKK alliance is emerging.
Iraq has been conducting joint drills with both Turkey and Iran ever since the illegal Kurdish secession referendum was held. Each country has vowed not to allow the establishment of a Kurdish statelet in the region, with Turkey being the most outspoken about resisting such a development.
From the perspective of a wider regional and even global conflict, two things are immediately clear.
1. In spite of Iraq’s more than generous overtures aimed at de-escalating the situation, continued Kurdish aggression aimed at Baghdad, is symptomatic either of Kurds being prideful to the point of foolishness or more likely, they have some guarantee of protection/forthcoming aid from a non-bordering power. As US troops maintain many bases in Iraq, this ‘foreign’ aid could actually be delivered quite easily. However, if the US came out in favour of Kurdish secessionists or worse yet, aided the Kurds against Iraqi troops in Kirkuk, what little confidence Baghdad has in the US would ultimately be shattered.
2. Following on from the previous point, it is becoming equally clear that just as the sectarian wars in Iraq were proxy battles between pro-Iranian Shi’a volunteers and Iraq’s Shi’a dominated army versus Takfiri terrorist groups like ISIS who are funded by Washington’s Gulfi Arab allies, so too would an Iraq versus Kurdish war, constitute an American attempt at dragging Iran into a new conflict on Iraqi soil.
While it is still conventional wisdom that the US is aware that an invasion of Iran would be a suicide mission for Washington, the US has for years, provoked Iran on Iraqi soil. A new Kurdish conflict would simply be a new phase of an ongoing phenomenon.
While Iran has every right to aid Iraq, especially in light of the recent singing of a military and security pact with Baghdad, the country that ought to take the lead in such a battle is Turkey.
Turkey has already positioned itself on the Iraqi border, with President Erdogan saying in no uncertain terms that military action against Kurdish secessionists could begin at any moment. Because Ankara and Baghdad have been cooperating in respect of Kurdish provocations, it is likely that Turkish intervention would be welcomed by Iraq, given the severity of the circumstances.
A Turkish intervention has several distinct advantages over an Iranian one. The United States has its sights set on Iran, as Donald Trump make perfectly clear in his recent speech wherein he announced the US will de-certify the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal). Anything, that Iran does in Iraq could trigger the US to attempt a proxy war inside Iran’s borders, possibly one which could see the arming of Iranian Kurdish terrorists with US supplies coming from Iraq. This would be made all the more easy for the US, if Iraq’s Kurdish regions which border Iran, were fully occupied by US troops. This is certainly a headache that Iran does not need.
By contrast, Turkey is a NATO member, albeit one engaged in increasingly tense disputes with the United States. Still, Turkey is not America and Israel’s primary boogie-man, that remains Iran. Because the US is struggling to redefine its narrative on Turkey, as Ankara pivots its policy to a more Eurasian and less western position, Ankara is well placed to come to Iraq’s aid should such a thing be requested.
Furthermore, while the US would almost certainly not hesitate to fire on Iranian troops or volunteers in Iraq (or anywhere else for that matter), it would be very difficult for US troops to engage NATO Turkey’s troops on the battlefield. Such a thing could spell the beginning of the end of NATO as we know it.
Of course, any foreign intervention would only be necessary if Iraq felt that this was the case. With reports just coming in of Iraq re-establishing control over Kirkuk’s main airbase in addition to re-establishing control over other vital positions in the region, the idea of foreign intervention may become redundant. Iraq’s troops may be desperate for peace, but they are equally battle hardened.
As one look at Iraqi social media will indicate, Iraq is not about to kowtow to pro-Israel Kurds after years of struggling against Takrifi terrorism. If this remains the case, the US will have found itself clandestinely on the side of yet another losing battle in the Middle East.
UPDATE I: Iraqi forces are no in control of the North Oil Company of Kirkuk.
UPDATE II: Iraqi forces have now retaken control of Kirkuk’s main airport.