How Baghdad recaptured Kirkuk and why the Kurds feel betrayed

How Baghdad recaptured Kirkuk and why the Kurds feel betrayed

Powerful Iranian military commander was instrumental in getting the peshmerga to step down

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter holds a position on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk in an area where Iraqi forces are deployed on October 14, 2017. Thousands of Iraqi troops were locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk as Washington scrambled to avert fighting between the key allies in the war against the Islamic State group. / AFP / Marwan IBRAHIM

Baghdad: When the Iraqi military battled Kurdish forces this week to reclaim the contested city of Kirkuk, the spectacle of one US-backed ally fighting another with US-supplied weapons was not the only incongruous sight.

Another was the United States turning its back on a crucial ally in the fight against Daesh, the Kurds, as Washington’s goals aligned with those of a regional nemesis, Iran.

While the military action in Kirkuk on Monday and Tuesday was carried out under the banner of the Iraqi military, the ground forces included Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

US officials, including President Donald Trump, insisted that the United States was not taking sides in the dispute, but some analysts say the United States approved the Iraqi plan to enter Kurdish-held areas and that Iran helped broker the agreement with a Kurdish faction to withdraw its fighters from Kirkuk, allowing the Iraqi forces to take over largely unopposed.

“Al Abadi would not have attacked without informing the US,” said David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser who worked on Iraq for 30 years, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. “At a minimum, the US knew that the attack was coming.”

Maria Fantappie, senior analyst for Iraq at the International Crisis Group, said, “The United States gave a green light, and that was essential.”

Iran’s goal, she said, was to insert Shiite militias into contested areas, and to divide the Kurds while solidifying Iranian influence over the Iraqi government.

Intentionally or not, the United States seems to have abetted that goal as it pursued its own aim of restoring Iraqi government authority to the disputed Kirkuk region. The United States, officials said, also declined to defend the Kurds to show its displeasure with them for rejecting an American request to cancel a referendum on independence from Iraq.

Supporters of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, said they expected better from the United States after 1,700 Kurdish fighters died helping the Americans fight the Daesh.

“I don’t want to use the word betrayal,” Vahal Ali, the communications director for the region’s president, said Wednesday, “but we definitely feel the United States has been negligent.”

He said the Kurds were “disappointed at how the United States looked at this.”

“Now they are giving Iraq to Iran as a present,” he added. “That’s as diplomatic as I can be.”

Joshua A. Geltzer, the former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, noted the irony of helping Iran just as Trump was assailing that country for sponsoring terrorism and threatening to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement.

“It seems like we just got out of the way as Baghdad rolled the Kurds, and that doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Plus, it makes little sense for an administration interested in getting tougher on Iran.”

The turn of events stems from the referendum the Kurds held three weeks ago, in which they voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq. Although the vote did not lead to a declaration of independence, it was vigorously opposed by nearly every power in the region.

Iran, which wields considerable influence in Baghdad, feared any move toward independence by the Kurds in Iraq would inflame separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish minority. The United States opposed the vote for, among other reasons, concern that it would rupture the coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Daesh in Iraq.

The Kurdish Regional Government’s determination to go ahead with the referendum, chasing the dream of an independent Kurdish homeland, has backfired spectacularly.

In just two days this week, Iraqi troops took Kirkuk and most other contested areas that Kurdish forces have held since 2014, including oil fields that have provided the bulk of revenues for the Kurdish region.

The assault crushed Kurdish dreams of independence and raised serious questions about the political judgment and ultimate survival of the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani.

In retrospect, the depth of Barzani’s miscalculations are clear if still surprising. He badly overestimated his bargaining position with Iraq and underestimated the animosity his referendum engendered among his neighbors and allies, including the United States. After the referendum, US officials told Barzani that he had forfeited the goodwill of the United States.

For the last three years, the Kurdish militia known as the peshmerga was a crucial ally for the United States and Baghdad in the battle against the Daesh, often proving more effective than the Iraqi army.

But less than two weeks after the Sept. 25 referendum, Iraqi forces drove Daesh militants out of Hawija, their last major urban stronghold in Iraq and the last battle in which the peshmerga played a role. The fight has shifted to the western desert of Anbar province, far from peshmerga positions in northern Iraq.

“Barzani had very little leverage before and he has absolutely no leverage now,” said Denise Natalie, a Middle East specialist at the National Defense University in Washington.

As Iraqi forces massed on the Kurdish border and Kurdish officials warned of an impending invasion, Al Abadi insisted that Iraq did not plan to assault Kirkuk and dismissed reports to the contrary as “fake news.” US officials did not dispute his assertions.

Asked Wednesday whether the United States had approved Baghdad’s military plans, Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, said, “We have long called for a unified, democratic Iraq.”

The other surprise happened when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and much of the peshmerga there, loyal to a Kurdish faction opposed to Barzani, had agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi force.

Attention has since focused on a meeting on the weekend before the Iraqi assault between a prominent Iranian military commander, Maj. Gen. Qasim Sulaimani, and members of that faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Gen. Khatab Omar, the police chief in Kirkuk, said Sulaimani held talks over the weekend with the PUK in Kirkuk and in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah.

Ali, the Kurdish government spokesman, said Sulaimani manipulated events to bring Shiite militias into areas vacated by the peshmerga.When the first peshmerga withdrawals began on Friday from two districts south of Kirkuk in Shiite areas, Shiite militias accompanying Iraqi troops raised their flags over former Kurdish outposts.

There has been speculation that Sulaimani brokered the deal for the Kurdish forces to abandon Kirkuk, but Saadi Bira, a spokesman for the faction, the PUK, said local peshmerga commanders negotiated the agreement with the Iraqi government.

Sulaimani has been a pivotal, if shadowy, figure in Iraq for years. As the head of Iran’s foreign military operations, he directed Shiite fighters who killed hundreds of US troops in Iraq. In 2014, he wrote a provision incorporating Shiite volunteer fighters into the Iraqi armed forces, the so-called “Iraqi Hezbollah,” a reference to the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon.Jennifer Cafarella, senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said that an agreement organized by Sulaimani was “the most likely scenario in an event this strategically significant for Iran.”

“It does also seem likely that he was instrumental in forcing the Kurds to step down,” she added.