Kirkuk in the Hands of Iraqi Forces after Clashes with Kurds

Iraqi forces took control of Altun Kupri on Friday, the last district in Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurds, following a three-hour battle, security sources said.

The town is 50 km far from the city of Erbil, the largest city in the Kurdistan region.

Kurdish forces withdrew from the town located on the Zab river, after clashing with Iraqi troops with machine guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenades, security sources added.

The Iraqi forces made further advancements into Kirkuk province as more Kurdish forces withdrew without fighting.

Iraqi forces are seeking to reestablish Baghdad’s authority over territory captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga outside the official boundaries of the Kurdistan region in the course of the war on ISIS militants, Reuters reported.

The Peshmerga had moved into Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled the region in the face of ISIS’s advance in 2014.

The Kurdish move obstructed ISIS militants from taking control over Kirkuk’s oilfields.

“Details will be communicated later,” an Iraqi military spokesman said.

Balance of Power Shifts in Kirkuk

Kirkuk- “Before we couldn’t proudly declare that we are Turkmen, now our flag is flying over Kirkuk’s citadel again,” Iraqi Omar Najat, 23, told Agence France Presse.

According to the agency, with the return of Kirkuk to Iraqi control, the balance of power appears to have shifted between the ethnic communities.

Three weeks before, the disputed city’s Kurds were gleefully taking part in the September 25 Kurdish independence referendum in open defiance of Baghdad.

Today, the election posters have been torn down. Huge Iraqi flags have been strung from palm trees and across buildings, although Kurdish flags have been left flying from lampposts.

AFP said that the election posters of referendum’s chief advocate, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, have also been torn down.

In the Kurdish neighbourhood of Rahimawa, business has been slow for the few shops that have reopened such as tyre salesman Abu Sima, 36, as he awaits a return to normality.

His nephews and nieces had to wait for schools to reopen in the wake of the upheaval on Sunday as Iraqi forces entered the city.

In three days and with barely any resistance from Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi forces took control of the whole of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

For fear of violence on Sunday, Abu Sima and his wife joined thousands of other families, mostly Kurds, in fleeing the city. But like most others, they have returned.

“We had to come back because we, the Kurds, are the majority, we were the original residents of Kirkuk,” he said.

In his fabrics store at the heart of the market in the shadow of the citadel, Omar Najat couldn’t agree less with that historical assessment.

“That there (the citadel) is Ottoman, Turkish, and Kirkuk is Iraqi Turkmen,” he insisted.

“Now that Baghdad is in charge, we have security, not like before when we had another power in place,” the young man told AFP.

He was referring to Kirkuk’s governor Najm Eddine Karim who brought the referendum to the province until Baghdad fired him.

He had previously gone on television to urge Kurdish residents to take up arms to resist the entry of Iraqi forces into the city.

AFP said that near a central square where a giant blue Turkmen flag has been hoisted, Abu Hussein is a firm believer in the coexistence of Kirkuk’s 800,000 residents.

The Kurds make up two-thirds of its population, 25 percent are Turkmen and the rest Arab Muslims and Christians.

“We know how to live alongside each ether,” said Abu Hussein. The Kurdish shopkeeper next door has an all-Arab workforce.

“It’s not just the past year or two, we’ve all been living together for decades,” said Abu Hussein, a 47-year Turkmen spice seller.

For Mohammed Hamdani, any blame lies on “politicians” in Baghdad, Irbil, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and other places.

“They can’t agree between themselves and it’s us, ordinary people, who pay the price,” he said.

Hamdani’s request is straightforward: “Whoever our leaders are, all we ask of them is one thing: that they give us security and the means to feed ourselves.”

Barzani Condemns Court Order ‘Targeting’ his Deputy amid Kurdish Displacement

Riyadh, Baghdad, Washington – The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made on Thursday a telephone call to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, during which they reviewed bilateral relations between both countries in various fields and ways of enhancing and developing them through the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council.

The King’s phone call is the second to al-Abadi in a week, after he had called the prime minister last Sunday to assert Saudi Arabia’s support for the unity, security and stability of Iraq.

The Saudi-Iraqi talks came as Washington announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would kick off on Friday a tour that involves Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, India and Switzerland.

A statement released by the State Department said that Tillerson would first travel to Riyadh, where he would take part in the inaugural Coordination Council meeting between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Secretary will also meet with various Saudi leaders to discuss the conflict in Yemen, the ongoing Gulf dispute, Iran, and a number of other important regional and bilateral issues.

Concerning the latest developments in Iraq, an Iraqi Court issued on Thursday an arrest warrant for Kurdish Vice President Kosrat Rasul for publicly insulting Iraqi forces.

The court order came following Rasul’s latest comments in which he said the Iraqi forces in Kirkuk were “occupying forces.”

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani issued a statement condemning the arrest warrant and said the court’s decision “is political and it clearly shows what the ruling mentality in Baghdad is like.”

Meanwhile, Kurdish officials confirmed that around 100,000 Kurds were displaced from Kirkuk as they fear revenge after the Iraqi forces controlled the city.

For its part, the UN expressed concern “about reports regarding the destruction and looting of houses, businesses and political offices, and forced displacement of civilians, predominantly Kurds, from disputed areas.”

Chevron Suspends Drilling Activity in Kurdistan

Chevron has temporarily suspended oil and gas drilling activity in Iraqi Kurdistan, the company said on Thursday, in the latest setback to the region following recent unrest.

“Chevron has decided to temporarily suspend its operations,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.

In September, Chevron drilled its first exploration well in Iraqi Kurdistan after a two-year break.

“We remain in regular contact with the Kurdistan Regional Government. We look forward to resuming our operations as soon as conditions permit.”

On the other hand, the Iraqi oil ministry reacted angrily on Thursday after Russian energy giant Rosneft signed a production sharing deal with the authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region without its approval.

The agreement came hot on the heels of Baghdad’s recapture from Kurdish forces of five oil fields in disputed territory outside the autonomous region in retaliation for an independence vote last month.

“This department and the Iraqi federal government are the only two bodies with whom agreements should be reached for the development and investments in the energy sector,” the ministry said in a statement, without mentioning Rosneft by name.

Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luaybi condemned the “irresponsible announcements coming from certain officials in Iraq or abroad, or from foreign companies about their intention to conclude deals with parties in Iraq without the federal government being aware.”

Iraq Orders Arrest of Kurdish VP

Iraqi soldiers ride in military vehicles in Zumar

Iraq’s Supreme Justice Council ordered the arrest of Kurdistan Regional Government Vice President Kosrat Rasul for allegedly saying Iraqi troops were “occupying forces” in Kirkuk.

A Supreme Judicial Council spokesman said the court considered Kosrat Rasul’s remarks as an incitement to violence.

He made them in a statement condemning the withdrawal of Peshmerga fighters from Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

Baghdad launched an operation to retake them on Monday, three weeks after the Kurds held an independence referendum.

On Tuesday night, after the military operation concluded, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said the referendum was “a thing of the past” and offered “dialogue under the constitution”.

KRG Peshmerga forces deployed into Kirkuk in 2014 when Iraqi government forces fell apart in the face of an offensive by ISIS insurgents, preventing the oilfields from falling into jihadist hands.

Rasul issued a statement on Wednesday lashing out on his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party amid reports that other leaders had ordered Peshmerga under their control not to resist the Iraqi troops as they advanced into Kirkuk.

There was only one serious clash on the outskirts of the city on Monday, which is reported to have left between three and 11 combatants dead.

Rasul said the territorial losses represented a “new Anfal for Kurdistan” – a reference to the campaign of genocide against Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1987 and 1988.

On Thursday, a spokesman for the Supreme Judicial Council said a court in Baghdad issued an arrest warrant for Rasul in connection with the statement.

“The court considers these comments as provocation against the armed forces, under Article 226 of the penal code,” the spokesman added.

The offense can carry a jail term of up to seven years or a fine.

Meanwhile, KRG Foreign Minister Fala Mustafa Bakir told broadcaster CNN that his side never meant to engage in war with the Iraqi army. He said there was a need for dialogue between the KRG and Iraq to enable a common understanding. The dispute, he added, was not about oil or the national flag but the future of two nations.

Crude oil flows through the KRG pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan have been disrupted by a gap between incoming and outgoing personnel since Baghdad’s retaking of Kirkuk.

An Iraqi oil ministry official in Baghdad said on Thursday that Iraq would not be able to restore Kirkuk’s oil output to levels before Sunday because of missing equipment at two fields.

The official accused the Kurdish authorities previously in control of Kirkuk of removing equipment at the Bai Hasan and Avana oil fields, northwest of the city.

Kurds Suspend Elections, Withdraw to “Pre-ISIS” Borders

Members of Iraqi federal forces are seen in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk

Erbil, Baghdad, London– Kurdish Peshmerga forces retreated to positions they had held in northern Iraq in June 2014 in response to an Iraqi army advance into the region after a Kurdish independence referendum, a senior Iraqi commander said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional electoral commission halted on Wednesday preparations for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to be held on November 1 due to the current crisis in Kirkuk province and lack of candidates.

In a statement released, the regional Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) said it decided to suspend the preparations for the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections due to the recent violence in Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

An Iraqi military statement said government forces had taken control of Kurdish-held areas of Nineveh province, including Mosul and the hydro-electric dam.

On Monday, Iraqi forces recaptured the major oil city of Kirkuk to the south shortly after the Peshmerga abandoned it.

Reuters pointed out that Bashiqa residents celebrated in the streets the retreat of Peshmerga and their replacement by Iraqi Troops.

Backed by the US, Peshmerga forces drove ISIS out of the area and gained control over several areas outside of official and semi-independent border of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk which Kurds demand to include as part of their sovereignty.

Peshmerga had advanced into Nineveh and the Kirkuk region over the past three years as part of the war against ISIS militants, filling a void left by a temporary collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of an ISIS onslaught.

“As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014,” the Iraqi army commander, who spoke on condition of animosity, told Reuters.

DW Germany news agency reported Iraqi sources saying that clashes erupted between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces near Mahmoudiyyah town, northwest of Mosul.

Sources told the agency that an army unit arrived in the town without any prior coordination with Peshmerga which led to the clashes, but commander of west Nineveh operations Lieutenant Karim Shweili arrived in the area and contained the situation.

Meanwhile, Rudaw agency posted a video that has been widely shared on social media showing a young man jumping on a vehicle of the Iraqi police force in Kirkuk. Although the vehicle was moving, the young man was able to take the Iraqi flag down.

The young man was part of a group of people who protested Iraqi forces’ presence.

In addition, a video circulated on social media showing a member of Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) standing before photos of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hung on the wall of the Kirkuk governorate’s building. The video angered Kirkuk civilians who refused such actions.

The fighter said that PMF have now taken over the shelters of Peshmerga.

“We reclaimed Kirkuk. Are you not ashamed? Where are the men? Did you not say “we are men coming from Erbil and Sulaimani to preserve Kirkuk and Kirkuk is ours”? Where are you?,” he said.

He also confirmed: “I am now in Kirkuk. We are now inside the governorate’s building.”

PMF and Iraqi forces controlled Kirkuk and nearby areas after Peshmerga forces retreated from it. Commander of Tigris operations Maj-Gen Ali Fadil Amraa told DW that security work within Kirkuk is restricted to local police.

DW also reported a security source saying the Directorate of National Security in Kirkuk had apprehended several persons who claimed they belonged to PMF, searching houses in the city, after which security forces and police toured the Kurdish areas to assures civilians.

Streets between Kirkuk and Erbil were crowded with Kurdish residents who continued to flee Kirkuk, fearing abuse or arrests. Large numbers have headed towards Sulaimania.

Kurdish member of Iraqi parliament Renas Jano believes that the incidents in Kirkuk aim at targeting the strong position of Kurdistan.

Jano told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that Iran entered Kirkuk aiming to weaken Peshmerga capabilities to an extent they can’t do anything in the post-ISIS era.

He explained that real changes will happen after ISIS has been terminated, and stated that after the decision of US concerning the nuclear deal, Iran is trying to fully control Iraq. He believes Tehran wants to do so for two reasons: compensate the financial losses of wars in Syria and Yemen through Iraqi oil, and overcome human losses it suffered during the war in Syria by employing other forces in Iraq like the PMF.

Jano considered the incidents occurring in Kirkuk a genocide against its civilians.

Meanwhile, head of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Kirkuk Aso Mamand announced that he was informed by the Iraqi forces that the city council would convene on Thursday to select a new governor.

He told reporters on Wednesday that some PMF fighters have stormed Kurdish houses, but described the situation as generally “calm.”

In addition, Vice president of Kurdistan and deputy leader of PUK Kosart Rasul Ali warned in a statement that what is happening is another Anfal against Kurds, in reference to a similar campaign they suffered in Baghdad during the residency of late President Saddam Hussein.

“Some apostates abandoned the PUK’s doctrine without returning to our party’s leadership and became the invaders’ assistant to obtain some personal, temporary gains. With this disgusting act, they are slipping themselves into the black pages of the history of our nation, humiliated,” he added.

60 Saudi Firms Seek Investment Opportunities in Baghdad International Fair

60 Saudi Firms Seek Investment Opportunities in Baghdad International Fair

Riyadh- Saudi Export Development Authority is part of the Saudi pavilion at the Baghdad International Fair in its 44th session, from October 21 to 30, with 60 companies from various industrial and service sectors.

The Saudi Export Authority is seeking through the exhibition to discover market opportunities for Saudi products in Iraq and to facilitate export procedures to Iraq in cooperation with the relevant authorities.

Secretary-General of the Saudi Export Development Authority Saleh al-Salami said that the Authority’s participation in the Baghdad International Fair comes from its role in encouraging Saudi products to reach the international markets.

He pointed out that the gross domestic product of Iraq amounted to about 643 billion riyals in 2016, the service sector was the largest share of them by 57 percent, and 38 percent for the industrial sector, while agriculture accounted for five percent.

The highest sectors in terms of the value of imports in Iraq are food products, according to the data of 2016, amounting to 21 billion riyals, followed by heavy equipment and electronics by about 20.3 billion riyals and then building materials by more than 15.8 billion Saudi riyals, which makes Iraq a market opportunity and a good export destination for Saudi products, Salami added.

Salami confirmed that the decision to head towards the Iraqi market was the result of a discussion sessions held by the Saudi Export Authority with a group of exporters to discuss the major challenges they have been facing, to find effective solutions to overcome them and reach means to facilitate the arrival of the Saudi product to the Iraqi market.

“The Authority strives to provide all tools and means that contribute to overcoming the obstacles that hinder the arrival of the national product to compete internationally in order to develop Saudi non-oil exports in the Iraqi market in particular and international markets in general.”

A statement issued by the Saudi Export Development Authority said that its participation at the Baghdad International Fair this year under the slogan of ‘industries that transcend borders and bring peoples closer,’ is one of the most important participations that will contribute to the establishment of economic trade relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Saudi Arabia, Iraq Hold Military Discussions

A model of Saudi airline Flynas is on display during a ceremony to sign a deal between Airbus and Flynas in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 16, 2017.

Riyadh, Baghdad- Iraq’s Major General Othman al-Ghanmi, accompanied by a military delegation, headed Wednesday morning to Saudi Arabia, in response to an invitation from his Saudi counterpart Chief of Defense Gen. Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Banyan.

This two-day visit is the first of its kind visit since decades for such a high-rank Iraqi officer.

A statement revealed that the visit aims to discuss vital topics in the coming period via cooperation and coordination in fields of fighting terrorism and opening border facilities – it is a significant step to cement ties between the two sisterly countries, exchange intelligence information and discuss challenges facing the region’s security and safety.

In the same context, a Saudi civil airplane arrived in Baghdad International Airport on Wednesday to be the first since 27 years ago when flights were suspended between Iraq and Saudi Arabia after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered his troops into neighboring Kuwait.

Tickets for the maiden flight were advertised for as low as SAR27 ($7.2) excluding taxes as flynas CEO Bandar al-Muhanna said the move to reopen the route would help “link the two sisterly countries”.

He added: “We worked hard to see that flynas flights to the brotherly nation of Iraq are operational as quickly as possible in order to connect the two brotherly nations economically and socially after a 27-year-long break.”

The Kurdistan Quagmire Proves Newton’s Third Law

In this week’s crisis over Kirkuk, Iraqi Kurds are experiencing a painful version of Newton’s Third Law: In Middle East politics, as in physics, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction.

The initial action was Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani’s decision to push ahead last month with a controversial independence referendum, despite strong warnings from the United States, Turkey, Iran and the central government in Baghdad that the Sept. 25 vote would backfire.

The counter-reaction came Monday, as Iraqi troops, backed by Shiite militias, took control of a key military base and oil fields in the region around Kirkuk, an area controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga militias but claimed by Baghdad. For the United States, it was a dilemma of watching one friend make a damaging mistake, and another friend retaliate.

Some members of Barzani’s regional government in Irbil described the Iraqi move as a military assault, but a statement by US Central Command, which oversees operations in Iraq, reported “coordinated movements, not attacks.” A Centcom official said the Iraqi advance had been arranged in discussions with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. (The PUK, based in Sulaymaniyah, is a historic rival of Barzani’s dominant Irbil-based group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.)

Barzani’s allies have argued that Iran is secretly orchestrating the Kirkuk confrontation. But a US official closely involved in policy described that allegation as “misinformation.” While Tehran and its Iraqi allies may have encouraged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move on Kirkuk, US officials said that it was Abadi’s decision — and that he would have faced heavy Iraqi opposition if he hadn’t responded strongly to the referendum and its breakaway bid.

A measure of the breadth of Iraqi criticism of the Kurdish independence move was a statement issued two weeks ago by Ali Sistani, a moderate cleric who tries to resist Iran’s meddling. He rejected the referendum as “an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.” Ever the balancer, he also urged Baghdad “to consider the Kurds’ constitutional rights.”

Having cautioned Barzani against the referendum, US officials were peeved when he went ahead anyway. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sept. 29 criticized the “unilateral” vote and said its results “lack legitimacy.” Prior to the balloting, Tillerson had proposed an alternative “road map” for discussions to resolve tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, but this last-minute appeal was rejected, US officials say.

The Kurdish miscalculation has had unfortunate consequences. But sometimes in the Middle East, mistakes open the way for new discussions, and US officials hope this will be the case with the Kirkuk crisis. US officials were working Monday to establish joint security measures to reduce tensions near the Kirkuk oil fields, so that production can continue, and to share information on the ground and counter inflammatory reports that could escalate the conflict. Officials hope these initial military and intelligence contacts will be a prelude to a broader political discussion involving Barzani and Abadi.

“The US wants to be an honest broker between the two,” said one senior US military official. He warned that if tensions aren’t resolved soon, the confrontation could undermine the joint Iraqi-Kurdish stand against ISIS, which has seemed to be entering its final stage. “This could consume a lot of energy and cause us to lose momentum when we’ve got ISIS on the run,” the senior official said.

Iran may not be pulling all the strings in Iraq, but it has a decisive presence there and will benefit from the confrontation between Abadi and the Kurds. That’s the unfortunate irony of the Kirkuk clash: In a week when the Trump administration was trying to launch a new campaign to counter Iran’s regional behavior, US officials must struggle to extinguish a sudden flare-up between the United States’ two key partners in Iraq — one that’s all the more frustrating because policymakers in Washington saw it coming.

The Washington Post

Germany Suspends Training of Peshmerga

Berlin- Germany will suspend its mission training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq because of the conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, the German defense minister said on Wednesday.

Reuters said that Germany has been a major partner for the Iraqi Kurds. It has provided 32,000 assault rifle and machine guns, as well as other weapons valued at around 90 million euros since September 2014.

About 130 German soldiers are based in Erbil where they are providing training to the Kurdish fighters, the news agency said.

The German government, which agreed on Wednesday on three-month extension of seven other foreign assignments for its armed forces, suspended the training of the Kurdish fighters as it sought to “always ensure the unity of Iraq”.

“We had agreed last Friday with the foreign office to pause the training so no wrong signal would be sent,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.

The minister said the German mission of equipping and training the Kurds for their fight against ISIS was necessary and the right thing to do.

“We haven’t forgotten how it looked like in 2014 when ISIS tried to commit genocide against the Yazidis and was around 10 km from Baghdad,” she said.

The suspension of the training is temporary and resuming it will depend on daily examination of the situation in Iraq, said the government spokesman on Wednesday.

Germany had warned Iraqi Kurds against holding what it called a “one-sided” referendum and had urged Iraqi and Kurdish officials to avoid any steps that could lead to a further escalation of the situation.