In a major escalation involving the disputed Iraqi Kurdish region, which last month declared independence following a referendum which was not recognized by any of its neighbors or Baghdad (in fact, only Israel has supported the legitimacy of the Kurdish referendum to date) Iraqi state media reported that on Monday morning Iraqi federal troops entered territories occupied by the nation’s Kurds, with the FT confirming that Iraqi forces moved to enter the city of Kirkuk. The Iraqi advance comes three years after Kurdish militias seized the areas outside their autonomous region as a pretext to defend against an advance by the Islamic State extremist group.
Al-Iraqiya TV said the military, anti-terrorist units and federal police have taken control of "vast areas" around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk which has long been one of the country’s deepest faultlines, claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad. Iraqi TV also quoted Prime Minister Abadi who said that he "gave the order to capture Kirkuk"
While the TV report said the Iraqis advanced without firing a shot and "without opposition from Kurdish Peshmerga", unconfirmed social media reports suggest that at least one peshmerga has been killed in the fighting:
First casualty in Kurdish, Baghdad/militia fighting around Kirkuk. https://t.co/GWx5LYzy1E— Samuel Oakford (@samueloakford) October 16, 2017
Separate twitter reports showed fighting in the southern part of Kirkuk in line with reports of clashes breaking out between Iraqi forces and Perhmerga:
Yet another explosion in Duz Xurmatu right now. pic.twitter.com/H5KnoDeKQA— Afarin Mamosta (@AfarinMamosta) October 15, 2017
A Rudaw report of heavy gunfire was also captured on Twitter:
According to local reports, coalition warplanes were "intensively flying over Kirkuk"...
... while CBS quoted the Pentagon commenting on the latest Kirkuk situation: "We strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions...that further undermine Iraq's stability."
Pentagon on Kirkuk: We strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions...that further undermine Iraq's stability.— cbsMcCormick (@cbsMcCormick) October 16, 2017
Additionally, the FT writes that Najmaddin Kareem, Kirkuk’s governor, was shown on pro-Kurdish channel Rudaw urging the people of the city to take up arms in its defence. Assuring that further bloodshed appears inevitable, Hemin Hawrami, a senior adviser to Masoud Barzani, KRG president, told the Financial Times that the peshmerga forces would defend the city.
“We have orders, if they come close, all Peshmerga forces will respond very strongly,” Hawrami said. He added that the KRG president had held talks on Sunday with Muhammad Fuad Masum, the Iraqi president, that aimed to resolve the stand-off, saying that it sought “peace and dialogue”. “It seems that Iraqi government and PMF (Popular Mobilisation Forces) made their decision to launch the offensive without even waiting for President Masum to go back to Baghdad tomorrow to take our proposals for talks,” Mr Hawrami said.
"Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilisation are now advancing from Taza, south of Kirkuk, in a major operation; their intention is to enter the city and take over [the] K1 base and oilfields," said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Security Council.
As Reuters adds, citing Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani of the Iraqi army’s ninth armoured division, the aim was to take the K1 air base, west of Kirkuk. Iraqi forces had gathered to the south of Kirkuk in recent days threatening to reclaim a city they had fled in 2014 after Isis militants captured nearby Mosul. The KRG’s peshmerga fighters have held the city for the past three years but its inclusion in last month’s independence referendum, where Kurds voted overwhelmingly to leave Iraq, has enraged Baghdad, and drawn strong opposition from Iran and Turkey.
The AP adds that, for now at least, a commander of the local Kurdish police force said Kurds remain in control of Kirkuk province’s oil wells, with Kurdistan24 reporting that Kirkuk oil is still flowing to Ceyhan via the eponymous pipeline. That may change very soon if Iraq has indeed sent troops to reclaim the local oil infrastructure.
Earlier in the day, Iraqi Kurdish media accused Iran of closing most of its border as its leaders met to discuss rocky relations with Baghdad, to pressure them into making concessions to the central government. As Zero Hedge reported earlier in the day, in an unexpected diplomatic turn of events which underscores the seriousness of escalating tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard (which last week were designated by the US as a terrorist organization), General Qassem Soleimani, arrived in Erbil on Sunday and met with Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani to discuss the growing crisis at a moment when Kurdish Peshmerga forces were blocking Iraqi Army access to Kirkuk oil fields and military installations
As a result, Iran and specifically its Shia militias appear to be also involved: according to the FT, there are fears among Kurdish officials of the involvement of Shia militias, such as the PMF, in the advance. They have played a critical role in ending Isis rule in Mosul but have made a series of threats to the KRG in Kirkuk in recent days.
Qais Khazaali, the head of one of Iraq’s most powerful Iranian-backed Shia militias put out a statement on Twitter: “We all stand with our heroic forces in implementing the orders of the general commander of the armed forces and the decisions of parliament for the state to regain control over areas overtaken [by the KRG].”
The autonomous Kurdish region exports about 550,000 barrels a day of crude oil, including from fields operated by the federal North Oil Company.
Following news of armed clashes in the oil rich region, oil prices jumped more than 1 per cent in early Asian trading, with Brent crude oil hitting $57.76 a barrel.
For those trading oil overnight, here is a live feed from Kirkuk: