The unopposed invasion of Kirkuk by troops ostensibly loyal to Baghdad of uncertain provenance and without anything other than token Peshmerga resistance to occupation of so strategically important an asset, the petrochemical capital of Iraq, is a back-room deal. The terms of that deal are not hard to divine.
By Matthew Parish*
On 16 October 2017 the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northeastern Iraq, occupied by the Iraqi Kurds since 2014 and heavily protected by thousands of Peshmerga (the battle-hardened military forces of the Kurdish autonomous territory in Iraq), fell to militias apparently loyal to the Iraqi central government.
The speed with which Kirkuk surrendered was remarkable. The invading Iraqi soldiers, variously described as members of the Popular Mobilisation Units (an Iranian-backed irregular militia with inferior training and experience compared with that of the Peshmerga) or the Iraqi Federal Police (a notoriously dysfunctional and ineffective force trained by the United States) arrived at the outskirts of Kirkuk only on 15 October 2017, and immediately occupied Kirkuk’s rich oil field infrastructure just outside the city: apparently without any resistance whatsoever. The very next day they rolled tanks and armoured personnel carriers directly into central Kirkuk, again without opposition of substance.
Video footage showed Iraqi troops sitting on the outside of their vehicles: a mysterious battle formation to besiege an ostensibly hostile city of almost one million people packed with aggressive defending troops. Shots seem to have been fired only in the vicinity of BBC reporters. No casualties were recorded. The Peshmerga were reported as having fled. Kirkuk is the centre of Iraq’s oil fields and its lucrative associated revenues. It would be disappointing if a well-trained and experienced military force fled from such an asset, when that army has no prior history of routs and, to the contrary, is known for viscerally fighting to the death in pursuit of Kurdish national interests.
Contrast this with the nine months it took similar forces to defeat an occupying urban militia in Mosul, Iraq’s second city close to Kirkuk and approximately twice the size.That invasion entailed a massive military and civilian death toll from the resulting carnage: by any measure involving tens of thousands of casualties. Yet barely five hours after the reported start of the invasion of Kirkuk, there was photo footage of soldiers loyal to Baghdad peacefully sitting in the Governor’s chair in his undamaged office in central Kirkuk. No military preparations seem to have been undertaken before Iraqi forces advanced upon the city. Some of the very limited video footage emerging of the Iraqi advance upon the city showed the elderly, women and children dancing in the streets as smiling tank commanders waved back.
Official statements reflecting these events were equally if not more strange. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the operation in Kirkuk was necessary “to protect the unity of the country, which is in danger of partition”. It was not clear how risking internal Iraqi military conflict by placing rival militias in direct confrontation with one-another would ameliorate this danger. Abadi described the Iraqi armed forces in glorious terms, as “heroic” and “committed to our strict directives to protect civilians”. Seldom do Iraqi politicians feel compelled to enunciate such niceties. The head of the Peshmerga, ostensibly but clearly ineffectively protecting the city from invasion, inexplicably blamed the swift and bloodless occupation upon a “plot against the people of Kurdistan” by another Kurdish group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that was not present in Kirkuk in significant numbers.
Ankara announced that it was “ready for any form of cooperation with the Iraqi government to end the PKK presence in Iraqi territory”. This was also a strange observation, because the PKK, a Kurdish insurgency group based in Turkey, was not in Kirkuk either but is associated with the PUK, accused of a “plot against the people of Kurdistan”. The Iraqi central government denounced the presence of PKK fighters in Kirkuk (who were not there) as “tantamount to a declaration of war”, although there was no conflict of substance in the occupation of Kirkuk.
Prime Minister Abadi announced that he did not want an armed confrontation with the Kurds (even though his government had accused the PKK of declaring war) and, perhaps most mysteriously, he announced that he would accept Kirkuk being governed by a “joint administration”: something virtually unheard of amidst the chaos and uncompromising confrontation of contemporary ethnically divided Iraq.
It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to appreciate that this entire narrative is fallacious. The unopposed invasion of Kirkuk by troops ostensibly loyal to Baghdad of uncertain provenance and without anything other than token Peshmerga resistance to occupation of so strategically important an asset, the petrochemical capital of Iraq, is a back-room deal. The terms of that deal are not hard to divine.
Firstly, Kurdish politics are split between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), loyal to the Kurdish government in Erbil (that enjoys close relations with Turkey); and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a Kurdish political movement supported by Iran and associated with Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey including the PKK. The PUK’s headquarters are in Iraqi Kurdistan’s second capital, Sulaymaniyah. The narrative emerging from both Erbil and Ankara was that the PUK / PKK were to blame for everything in Kirkuk, even though they were not present. This should give rise to suspicion.
Secondly, although Erbil announced that the Peshmerga, in Kirkuk under the control of the KDP, were prepared to defend Kirkuk to the death; and although the Peshmerga have repeatedly shown extraordinary ferocity and fearlessness in battles throughout Iraq and Syria, in this case it seems likely that the KDP instructed the Peshmerga under their control guarding Kirkuk to melt away and to provide whatever Iraqi forces that decided to enter the city free passage. Otherwise it would be impossible that those forces would have been able to project footage of their sitting comfortably, undisturbed and uninjured, in the Kirkuk governor’s office within a matter of just a few hours.
Thirdly, the Iraqi forces participating in the presumptive invasion of Kirkuk must have known that they would enter the city unopposed. Otherwise they would never have proceeded to advance upon a heavily-defended large city within a mere 24 hours of arriving there and therefore without the necessary pre-onslaught preparations. Moreover they would not have been videoed riding into town smiling and cheering. These events are obviously staged. One does not normally invade an armed Iraqi city smiling and sitting atop one’s tank.
Fourthly, if the Iraqi invaders knew they would not substantially be opposed then the unopposed occupation of Kirkuk must be the result of a hidden political agreement between Baghdad and Erbil. What could the terms of that agreement be? One possibility is that Baghdad and the KDP, with Ankara’s support, have agreed to share custody of Kirkuk (and hence its oil revenues): that is suggested by Prime Minister Abadi’s talk of a “joint administration”. The question then arises as to why Baghdad and the Kurds have never been able to agree upon a “joint administration” of Kirkuk before. An inability to agree how to share revenues from the Kirkuk oil fields has been a source of frustration between Baghdad and Kurdistan for a decade. What changed?
From this it may follow that the key to the apparent new era of peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and Baghdad may be elimination of the PUK and Sulaymaniyah. If, as it appears, the events surrounding the apparent occupation of Kirkuk by Iraqi forces are directed at common blame of the PUK, then it may be that removal of the PUK from the revenue-sharing equation is the goal of the “joint administration” that now apparently forms the basis of Baghdad-Erbil cooperation in the Kirkuk area. The KDP is happy to share Kirkuk oil revenues with Baghdad, as long as no part of those revenues go to their political rivals the PUK. Ankara is delighted to participate in this vision, and because the only pipeline from Kirkuk goes through Turkey Ankara may be able to enforce a deal that excludes the PUK. Thereby Ankara may undermine the PKK that plagues Turkey as a domestic insurgency movement, and also the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a PUK-run administration in northern Syria that Ankara regards as a threat right upon its border.
If this analysis is correct, then many dangers lay ahead. Firstly, elimination of Sulaymaniyah / the PUK / the SDF / Rojava (the name given by the SDF to Kurdish-controlled northern Syria) from a process of political dialogue and compromise is surely likely to backfire. If the PUK consider that they are being cut out from a fair share of Kirkuk oil revenues – the principal source of funds across Iraq and Syria – then they may turn to violence or propagation of instability to obtain what they consider as rightfully theirs. Rojava is a bulwark against both the Islamic State and Damascus, and is supported by the United States. It is not desirable that Rojava or the PUK falter. Moreover the PUK is not going anywhere. It remains an important force in Iraqi Kurdish politics. The idea that the KDP will overcome the PUK and Sulaymaniyah to impose political hegemony upon Iraqi Kurdistan is not realistic given the tribal nature of Kurdish politics. Iran may intervene to support its PUK ally.
Even more concerningly, whatever Iraqi forces now occupy Kirkuk may renege upon their promise of “joint administration”. In accordance with the spirit of Iraq’s uncompromising factional politics, they may just decide to keep Kirkuk for themselves. Should they do that; or should the KDP decide that the presence of forces in Kirkuk loyal to Iraq’s central government is no longer convenient to them, then Iraqi forces may suddenly be faced with a genuine battle with the Peshmerga seeking to reoccupy Kirkuk, that they may well lose. The Peshmerga are effective fighters.
It is almost inconceivable that the Kurds gave up occupation of such valuable a prize as Kirkuk without a fight. Whatever inchoate arrangement was reached which led to these events, it would seem likely unstable and with the potential to damage an important Kurdish interest group whose assent is necessary for Iraq’s future stability. Through the lens of divided Kurdish interests, a new perspective might be obtained upon Kurdistan’s independence referendum on 25 September 2017. Given that it was impossible for Kurdistan to perform the outcome of this referendum (i.e. actually declare independence), why did it take place? Was the referendum exercise the product of a complex political confrontation between two rival Kurdish factions? That remains to be seen.
*Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva and the Managing Partner of Gentium Law Group. He was formerly a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is a visiting Professor at the University of Leicester. www.matthewparish.com
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.