— KR Security Council (@KRSCPress) October 16, 2017
Iraqi troops from the US-trained Counter-Terrorism Service, backed by Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization Forces, seized control of the city of Kirkuk from the Kurdish Regional Government today in a rapid offensive launched within the last 24 hours. The Iraqi government quickly capitalized on its victory against the Islamic State in the adjacent city of Hawija and turned its energy on the secessionist Kurds in Kirkuk. The quick strike exposed deep fault lines existing within the anti-Islamic State coalition and Kurdish politics.
The United States has trained and equipped both Kurdish and Iraqi forces as part of the ongoing anti-Islamic State operation. The military operation followed heightened tensions resulting from the Sept. 25 Kurdish independence referendum. It also followed President Trump’s announcement of a new Iran strategy on Friday.
Kirkuk, an economically significant city in northern Iraq with more than one million residents, has been a political and sectarian hotspot since the US ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Kurdish forces have controlled Kirkuk since the summer of 2014, when the Iraqi military fled northern Iraq following the Islamic State’s invasion. Kirkuk, which is outside of the established borders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, is a major oil producing region in Iraq.
Kirkuk has also been a major sectarian faultline in Iraq, with Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Sunni Arabs jockeying for influence in the government.
The Government of Iraq’s War Media Cell, the outlet which has been reporting on the anti-Islamic State fight, has been releasing updates on the Kirkuk offensive. At around noon local time, the War Media Cell reported that Iraqi forces controlled the Kirkuk Airport, also known as K-1. In its most recent post, the War Media Cell reported that Iraqi forces control a number of key points in Kirkuk, including the industrial neighborhood and North Oil Company, as well as a power plant, a refinery, and a police station.
Before Iraqi troops entered Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga forces clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) south of the city. The Kurdistan Regional Government claimed Peshmerga forces “destroyed at least five US Humvees used by [the] PMF” as it advanced south and southwest of the city.
The Iraqi government has relied on the PMF, a grouping of militias most of which are backed by Iran, for support in its fight against the Islamic State. Iranian-linked militias have played a key role in liberating cities such as Mosul, Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Baiji, and most recently Hawija, from Islamic State rule. The Iraqi government has institutionalized the PMF as an official military arm. Its top leaders are known Iranian proxies, as are some of its largest and most capable militias.
The United States has been reticent to criticize or mitigate the rise of the Iranian-backed PMF within Iraqi security infrastructure due to the prioritization of the anti-Islamic State fight. In some cases, the US even appears to be praising them. In the most recent Operation Inherent Resolve press briefing, Maj. Gen. Robert White, the ground commander of coalition forces involved in Iraq, described the PMF as “the fourth cohort of the ISF that are sanctioned by the government of Iraq. And so they have been an integral part of the successes that the Iraqi Security Forces have had to date.”
The US has continued to emphasize the precedence of the anti-Islamic State fight. CENTCOM dismissed the engagement in Kirkuk as a “misunderstanding.” Maj. Gen. White encouraged dialogue and a refocus on “the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.” The Islamic State’s territorial control has waned over the past year, but the self-declared caliphate retrains strategic locations in the Euphrates River Valley.
The clashes in Kirkuk have exposed rifts between Iraqi Kurdistan’s rival political parties: the Patriot Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The PUK reportedly permitted Baghdad to advance into Kirkuk, despite KDP dissent. The PUK and the Talabani family receive support from Iran, raising suspicion about a potential backroom deal to hand over the city to Iranian-aligned forces and undermine the KDP. Prominent Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, have visited Iraqi Kurdistan recently to pay respects to Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq and Talabani family patriarch. The PUK’s rival, the KDP, received the lionshare of credit for ushering in the Kurdish referendum.
Iranian-supported militias have praised the Peshmerga surrender, specifically crediting the PUK. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a prominent Shiite militia complicit in the killing of American soldiers, released a statement praising the PUK for taking the “responsible position” and for not succumbing to the “personal and familial interests of the separatists.”