Kurds seize disputed oil hub amid Iraq chaos
KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — After a decades-long dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, it took just an hour and a half for its fate to be decided.
As al-Qaida-inspired militants advanced across northern Iraq and security forces melted away, Kurdish fighters who have long dominated Kirkuk ordered Iraqi troops out and seized full control of the regional oil hub and surrounding areas, according to a mid-ranking Army officer. He said he was told to surrender his weapons and leave his base.
His account was corroborated by an Arab tribal sheik and a photographer who witnessed the looting of army bases after troops left and who related similar accounts of the takeover from relatives in the army. All three spoke to The Associated Press Friday on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Kurdish forces.
“They said they would defend Kirkuk from the Islamic State,” said the Arab officer, who oversaw a warehouse in the city’s central military base. He asked that his rank not be made public.
He insisted the Iraqi troops had not planned to retreat before the Islamic state. “We were ready to battle to death. We were completely ready,” he said at a roadside rest house just inside the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
The Kurdish takeover of the long-disputed city came days after the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni militants seized much of the country’s second largest city of Mosul and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit before driving south toward Baghdad. Their lightning advance has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A spokesman for Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, said they had only moved in after Iraqi troops retreated, assuming control of the “majority of the Kurdistan region” outside the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.