Kurds de­feated, dis­placed and di­vided af­ter Iraq re­claims oil-rich Kirkuk

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Martin Chulov in Er­bil

When the guns fell silent on the Kirkuk-Er­bil road, just af­ter noon on Fri­day, a fresh bor­der had been scythed through the oil-rich soil – and a new line of in­flu­ence carved across north­ern Iraq.

Their gun bar­rels still hot, van­quished pesh­merga forces be­gan an­other with­drawal a few miles closer to the seat of gov­ern­ment in the now shrunken bound­aries of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan. A few miles south, closer to Kirkuk, Iraqi forces were dig­ging in, their con­quest of the en­tire prov­ince com­plete, and their five-day sweep through the rest of the north hav­ing seized up to 14,000 sq km from the Kurds, with a min­i­mum of bother.

Bagh­dad has now re­asserted its au­thor­ity over ter­ri­tory that the Kurds oc­cu­pied out­side their man­dated bor­ders, most of which they had claimed dur­ing the three-year fight against the Is­lamic State (Isis) ter­ror­ist group.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pit­u­la­tion – which fol­lowed an in­de­pe­dence ref­er­en­dum that was sup­posed to strengthen their hand – has not only shat­tered Kur­dish am­bi­tions for at least a gen­er­a­tion; it has also laid bare an evolv­ing power struggle in Iraq, and a re­gional dy­namic that is fast tak­ing shape in the wake of the shat­tered so-called caliphate de­clared by the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, in mid-2014.

Lin­ing up to claim the rout of the Kurds were Iraq’s prime min­is­ter, Haider al-Abadi, and Iran’s om­nipresent gen­eral, Qassem Suleimani, whose in­flu­ence in the days be­fore last week­end’s at­tack was key to shap­ing the af­ter­math even be­fore a shot had been fired.

Ira­nian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, too, were cel­e­brat­ing the win in Kirkuk, which the Kur­dish leader, Mas­soud Barzani, had in ef­fect an­nexed by in­clud­ing it within the bound­aries in which the ref­er­en­dum was held. “We were never go­ing to let a Zion­ist project like this claim Kirkuk,” said a se­nior leader of the Shia-led forces, known as the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Units (PMUs). “Kirkuk is cen­tral to Iraq’s econ­omy and it will

never be­long to Barzani.”

Con­tested through­out his­tory, Kirkuk is home to Kurds, Arabs and Turk­men, as well as oil­fields, an air­port, a strate­gic mil­i­tary base – and at least 8,000 mil­lion bar­rels of sub­ter­ranean oil. It has pow­ered the oilde­pen­dent Kur­dish econ­omy for the past three years, with up to 600,000 bar­rels a day ex­ported through a pipe­line it built to Turkey, much to Bagh­dad’s cha­grin.

The fall of Kirkuk has also un­earthed a fault­line that lay at the heart of the de­ci­sion to hold the ref­er­en­dum, which won 93% en­dorse­ment among those Kurds who turned up to vote, but was never whole­heart­edly en­dorsed by the Tal­a­bani clan, whose pesh­merga forces had been re­spon­si­ble for de­fend­ing its south­ern ap­proaches.

“They could never get past it be­ing led by Barzani,” said an Iraqbased Euro­pean diplo­mat. “Be­yond that, it was al­ways go­ing to put them in an im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion with Iran, who would in­vade Iraq be­fore los­ing it. And I think deep down they prob­a­bly saw this as not some­thing you could re­solve through a uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion.”

In Bagh­dad, the Ira­nian claims of be­ing cen­tral to the vic­tory were re­peat­edly be­ing dis­avowed. “The pop­u­lar myth is that a cer­tain Ira­nian gen­eral has a hand in ev­ery­thing in this coun­try, that he is a viceroy of some sorts,” said a se­nior Iraqi min­is­ter. “That’s not true. This is a coun­try that has been through a lot and is get­ting back on its feet through the blood of its mar­tyrs and the sac­ri­fice of its cit­i­zens.”

Asked why he de­clined to put his name to his re­marks, the MP cited “the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sit­u­a­tion”. He then added: “It isn’t wise to up­set [Ira­nian of­fi­cials].”

While Iraq’s mil­i­tary in­deed played a prom­i­nent role in re­claim­ing Kirkuk, so, too, did Shia groups who re­port to Suleimani and the joint lead­ers of the PMU forces, Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi alMuhan­dis. Days be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, it was al-Amiri who sent an en­voy to Barzani threat­en­ing “war” if the poll went ahead. Suleimani also sat op­po­site the de facto Kur­dish pres­i­dent to try to dis­suade him, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior Kur­dish of­fi­cials. When that did not work, he re­quested – and was re­fused – a sec­ond meet­ing. And, over the past two months, he had been a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the ri­val po­lit­i­cal camp in the Kur­dish north – the Tal­a­bani fam­ily, in the re­gion’s sec­ond city, Su­lay­maniyah.

The US, which was ve­he­mently op­posed to the bal­lot – es­pe­cially the de­ci­sion to in­clude Kirkuk – in­sisted that de­spite the lat­est Iraqi move the ar­eas that the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has “seized” re­main dis­puted.

Washington sat out the past week of clashes, even as forces loyal to Suleimani helped lead the as­sault.

The spec­tre of an as­cen­dant Iran has been cen­tral to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rhetoric in the past week, as the US pres­i­dent pon­ders tear­ing up the Iran nu­clear deal – the cen­tre­piece of his pre­de­ces­sor’s de­tente with Tehran.

“You have to say that this de­fi­ance [by Iraq] was at odds with what clearly hap­pened,” said a for­mer US diplo­mat in Iraq. “Yes, the Iraqis did fight and no, they weren’t a dis­tant sec­ond in in­flu­ence. But the Ira­nian role here can’t be de­nied. And nor can the fact that this is a prime ex­am­ple of a big­ger struggle for the Iraqi street. This is Na­jaf v Qom [Shia power bases in Iraq and Iran] writ large.”

“The po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary cam­paigns around Kirkuk were or­gan­ised by Suleimani,” said an Iraqi min­is­ter. “Make no mis­take about it. Any­one who thinks he de­fers to Abadi does not un­der­stand how busi­ness is done in Iraq.”

On Satur­day, 15 Oc­to­ber, with Iraqi and Shia forces massed near Kirkuk, the Kur­dish fac­tions – the KDP, which is led by the Barza­nis, and the PUK, a fief­dom of the Tal­a­ba­nis – sat down to talk in the lake­side town of Dukan. Barzani ar­rived with his son Mas­rour, and other se­nior of­fi­cials. On the PUK side, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the widow of the PUK fa­ther-fig­ure Jalal Tal­a­bani, who had died just over a week ear­lier, led a del­e­ga­tion in­clud­ing her el­dest son, Bafel, and se­cu­rity tsar Lahur.

“Bafel said he had met with Abadi and dis­cussed al­low­ing the golden di­vi­sion (Bagh­dad’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism forces) into Kirkuk. He said the Repub­li­can Guard might take con­trol of some of the sites,” said a se­nior Kur­dish of­fi­cial. “We asked him if he had made an agree­ment, and he said ‘no, they were just dis­cus­sion points’. We said if he had agreed to that, we would have to ad­just our force pos­ture ac­cord­ingly.

“They lied. It was a his­tor­i­cal be­trayal. The deal was done while con­do­lences were re­ceived for Tal­a­bani, first in Su­laimaniya, and then in Bagh­dad. The sec­ond meet­ing is where Abadi was also in­formed.”

KDP of­fi­cials also be­lieve that Bafel and Lahur held two pre­vi­ous meet­ings with lead­ers of the PMUs – one of which Suleimani at­tended – in Tuz Khur­matu, 37 miles south of Kirkuk.

Speak­ing on Fri­day, Bafel Tal­a­bani de­scribed the de­ci­sion to hold a ref­er­en­dum as “a colos­sal mis­take. And even in the fight­ing in Kirkuk, there was an op­por­tu­nity. Prime Min­is­ter Abadi, his ex­cel­lency, reached out to us and we reached an hon­ourable com­pro­mise,” he said of the move to with­draw pesh­merga forces.

As the de­feated pesh­merga forces re­drew their de­fences on Satur­day, the new bound­ary north of Kirkuk – where a de facto line marked out ar­eas dis­puted be­tween Kurds and Arabs af­ter the fall of Sad­dam Hus­sein – was busily be­ing for­ti­fied by Iraqi forces, among them Shia groups.

“This has been the most painful les­son they have faced,” said a PMU mem­ber fur­ther along the road in Kirkuk.

“Let them re­flect on that, and on his­tory. Kirkuk will never be Kur­dish.”

Kurds dis­placed from Kirkuk by the on­go­ing con­flict be­tween Iraq the Kur­dis­tan re­gion protest out­side the US Em­bassy in Er­bil. Pho­to­graph: El­iz­a­beth Fitt/Rex

Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan and shout slo­gans dur­ing a de­mon­stra­tion out­side the UN Of­fice in Er­bil. Pho­to­graph: Safin Hamed/AFP/ Getty Images

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