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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Why Kirkuk fell to Iraqi troops without Kurdish resistance

The handover of power in Kirkuk was a carefully orchestrated agreement that reflected both intra-Kurdish rivalries and the power wielded in Iraq from Tehran

An Iraqi flag is seen on a military vehicle at an oil field in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq October 17, 2017.
An Iraqi flag is seen on a military vehicle at an oil field in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq October 17, 2017.

Iraqi forces claimed a glorious victory, but in reality they walked into Kirkuk for the most part unopposed.

That the fiercely proud Kurdish peshmerga forces would have rolled over and allowed the central government troops and their Shiite militias to take the prized city without a fight is unthinkable.

Instead, what amounted to a handover of power on Monday when Iraqi troops swept into the city and took it from Kurdish control, was an orchestrated agreement that reflected both intra-Kurdish rivalries and the power wielded in Iraq from Tehran.

The surrender of Kirkuk took place amid the internal divisions among the two main ruling Kurdish political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of regional government leader Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of his late rival Jalal Talabani.

Both parties control their own Kurdish forces, known collectively as the peshmerga. While Mr Barzani's KDP strongly supported the independence referendum, some PUK figures were skeptical of the consequences it would have on the Kurdistan region.

On Monday, peshmerga figures loyal to the KDP accused a group within the PUK of “treason” for assisting Baghdad's advance. “We regret that some PUK officials helped in this plot,” a statement said.

The offensive took place a day after the powerful Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, met with Kurdish officials in Kurdistan. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ overseas operations provides training and weaponry to Iraq’s Shiite militias, which took part in the operation to oust Kurdish forces from Kirkuk.

It is not known what Major Gen Suleimani discussed with Kurdish PUK leaders. But, within hours, their fighters started abandoning their posts, making way for Iraqi military units to enter the outskirts and then centre of Kirkuk.

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"The peshmerga are divided. The PUK cut a deal brokered by Qassem Suleimani to allow the Iraqi army and Hashed Al Shaabi [the collection of Shiite militias] back without a fight," Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute think tank, told The National.

"The deal avoided bloodshed as the Iraqi army and Hashed Al Shaabi are far better trained than the peshmerga," Mr Rubin said.

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said: “It seems clear that there was a deal made that included elements of the PUK. This facilitated a withdrawal in several areas.”

“More broadly, Kurdish leaders may have concluded that war was futile given intra-Kurdish divisions, the disparity in military strength between Baghdad and Erbil, the regional consensus against them and the determination of all relevant parties particularly Turkey, Iran and the United States to support Baghdad," Mr Haddad said.

Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields in 2014 to prevent ISIL from seizing the city.

"While the Kurds are better at public relations and have cultivated an image of being the key force against ISIL, the reality is that the Iraqi army and Hashed Al Shaabi did most of the fighting in Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Beiji, and even Mosul,” Mr Rubin said.

“A battle between the Iraqi military and the Kurds would be like a battle between United States and Lichtenstein.”

Kirkuk, a city home to Iraqi Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds, emerged as a flashpoint in the crisis after it was included in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence vote last month even though it is not part of the Kurdish region.

Kirkuk is particularly vital to Kurdish independence because without its oil, Kurdistan would not be an economically viable country.

Washington has been pushing for a "joint administration" of Kirkuk between Baghdad's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“Having reasserted its control over areas lost in 2014, Iraq should refrain from any further military action, establish a joint administration of Kirkuk and begin negotiations with all Kurdish parties with a serious eye towards addressing the many long-standing issues between Baghdad and Erbil," Mr Haddad said.

Michael Knights, Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Baghdad and Erbil could still have a joint administration over Kirkuk and its resources.

“They are still cooperating at this very minute on the deal to send about 40,000 barrels per day of oil to KRG exports and oil to Baghdad refineries and disputed area refineries. And there was effective joint administration before 2014, so it is just going back to something we had fairly recently.”

Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city of many faiths and it will remain as such, Mr Rubin said. “Erbil overplayed its hand, refused to negotiate, and lost,” he said.

"The oil fields are now under Baghdad's control, and that means Erbil's hand is now even weaker. That said, let's hope the Iraqis are wise enough to know that they should be magnanimous in victory and treat all Kirkukis well in order to demonstrate that the Iraqi government can be more open-minded and democratic than Erbil."