Oil fields and a military base held by Kurdish forces near the city of Kirkuk have been captured by Iraqi forces.
On October 16, Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militia clashed with Kurdish peshmerga forces around Kirkuk, an oil-rich area at the heart of disputes between the two sides.
As reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster, tensions between the two sides have escalated since the Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted last month for an independent state in a non-binding referendum, which controversially included disputed territories such as Kirkuk.
Iraqi government and Iran-backed Shiite militia, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), advanced to take control of oil fields, the airport and the strategically-important K1 military base in and around Kirkuk city, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said.
In related news, Bloomberg noted that the military offensive, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had vowed to avoid, follows three weeks of escalating tensions since the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of statehood on September 25.
Iran and Turkey, both with their own restive Kurdish minorities, led regional opposition to the referendum and on October 16, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a statement stressing the need for Iraqi unity.
It remains unclear, however, how far Iraq’s army and its militia partners intend to advance, but the importance of Kirkuk and the complexity of the armed alliances increase the “potential for political and military miscalculations,” said Glen Ransom, Iraq analyst at Control Risks in Dubai.
“The US will try to de-escalate the situation to avoid compromising anti-Islamic State operations,” he said. This could lead to agreements on Kurdish withdrawals from some areas and potentially joint administration, he added.
However, the General Command of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga Forces has warned the attack on Kirkuk by the Iraqi forces is “a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan”. In a statement released on October 16, it said the government of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should pay a “heavy price” for initiating the conflict.
“This attack, waged by the Iraqi government, Hashd al-Shaabi and forces associated with the Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, is in retaliation against the people of Kurdistan who have asked for freedom. It is revenge against the honourable people of Kirkuk who have shown bravery,” said the statement, which was published in full by the Kurdish media network Rudaw.
“We declare this to every party that this attack by the Hashd and Iraqi forces was launched by American weapons, armoured vehicles, tanks and other coalition weapons. These American weapons have been given to the Iraqi army and Hashd under the name of the war on [Islamic State] ISIS. This was done at a time when the Peshmerga, also in the fight against ISIS, were not given necessary weapons to defend themselves against the terrorists. “