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.

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

Iran Denies any Revolutionary Guards Role in Kirkuk Operations

Iran

London – Iranian Supreme Leader’s top Adviser for International Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati denied media reports that the Iranian Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) participated in the Iraqi government operations in Kirkuk against the Kurds.

“The IRGC plays no role in the Kirkuk operations,” Velayati told reporters in Tehran on Tuesday while defending the “consultative” role of the Iranian forces in Iraq and Syria.

He made his remarks in response to charges by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that the IRGC was commanding the movement of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk.

This was the second time in two days in which Velayati commented on the Kirkuk operations. On Monday, he had criticized Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, accusing him of trying to control the Kirkuk oil.

“Barzani should accept that he has made a mistake, admit it and try to make up for it,” Velayati demanded.

A Peshmerga statement said that a Revolutionary Guards leader, known as Eqbalpour, was directing the PMF in Kirkuk.

Barzani’s media adviser, Kifah Mahmoud said: “The Iranians were very clear to see. Many members of the IRGC were in the battle and most of them were speaking Persian.”

“What happened was a conspiracy with Iran’s participation through the PMF and air coverage, and of course with Turkish approval,” Mahmoud added, according to the German news agency (dpa).

Meanwhile, officials at the Parwezkhan border crossing between Iraq and Iran said troops from the pro-Baghdad PMF had taken control of the Iraqi side of the crossing, reported the Anadolu news agency.

It quoted officials, on condition of anonymity, as saying that PMF members who were stationed on the Iranian side, entered the Parwezkhan crossing and seized control of it.

On the Kurdish side, officials stressed that Kurdish border crossings with Iran were under the full control of Kurdish authorities and that the Iraqi forces were not present there.

“The claim that the PMF forces have entered the border ports between the Kurdistan Region and Iran is not true,” Samal Abdulrahman, director general of the Kurdistan Region’s customs told Rudaw television.

“No Iraqi force has come to the border port, which remains closed by Iran,” Aram Sayakhan, media and relations officer of the Parwezkhan crossing told Rudaw.

Oil Edges Higher on Gains as Geopolitical Threats Intensify in Kirkuk, Iran

Oil

London – As a number of geopolitical problems unfold, oil prices maintained gains on Tuesday, while Goldman Sachs said oil production from Iraq’s Kurdistan region was likely to be jeopardized by the standoff with Iraq.

Despite the fears of the Kurdistan region referendum affecting oil output, the banking company said the conflict between the United States and Iran remains a bigger long-term threat to global supplies.

Brent crude futures LCOc1 gained 6 cents, or 0.1 percent, to settle at $57.88 per barrel, while US crude CLc1 gained 1 cent to settle at $51.88. Both contracts traded up nearly 1 percent and down over 1 percent during the day.

“In the case of Iran, there are likely no immediate impacts on oil flows and there remains high uncertainty on potential reintroduction of US secondary sanctions. If they are, we expect that several hundred thousand barrels of Iranian exports would be immediately at risk,” analysts at Goldman Sachs said in a research note published Tuesday.

“In the case of Kurdistan, the 500,000 barrel-per-day (bpd) Kirkuk oil field cluster is at risk with initial reports that 350,000 bpd has shut in, although this remains unclear,” Goldman analysts said.

On the other hand, Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi announced plans to construct a new refinery in the oil-producing region of Kirkuk, which has become the scene of open conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Iraqi government also plans to increase oil production from the region to more than a million barrels per day, with a foreign oil company to be contracted to implement the plan, according to the minister.

More so, Russia’s TASS news agency had cited Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak on Tuesday as saying that Russian oil companies may continue working in Iraq despite continued tension there.

Iraq is second-largest oil producer at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

After a strong rally in the previous session, geopolitical tensions edged oil prices higher on Tuesday morning. Brent crude rose 0.6 percent to $58.16 a barrel while US oil futures hovered near the $52 level in lunchtime trade.

Iraqi Military: Kurdish Peshmerga Return to June 2014 Line

Iraq

A senior Iraqi military commander announced on Wednesday that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have retreated to territories they had controlled in June 2014 before ISIS swept through northern and western Iraq.

They returned to the June 2014 line after turning over their positions in the Nineveh province to Iraqi government forces, he told Reuters.

“As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014,” the Iraqi army commander, who asked not to be identified. There was no immediate comment from the Kurdish side.

Iraqi forces declared that they had achieved their objective in pushing back Kurds from territories they had seized in their three-year war against ISIS.

Their lightning operation saw them sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month.

“Security has been restored in sectors of Kirkuk, including Dibis, Al-Multaqa, and the Khabbaz and Bai Hassan North and South oil fields,” the federal government’s Joint Operations Command said.

“Forces have been redeployed and have retaken control of Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, Mosul dam, Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains,” it added.

The Kurds have now once again returned to their three-province semi-autonomous region in the north.

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces announced that they had completed “imposing security” in Kirkuk during the 48-hour military operations.

The Iraqi advance dealt a body blow to the Kurdish region’s finances by depriving it of the output from the Kirkuk oil fields which had made up much of its exports.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered the recapture of Kirkuk and all other disputed areas claimed by both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central authorities in Baghdad in response to the September 25 referendum.

The Kurds voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq. The referendum was rejected by Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the US.

Govt. Forces Continue Advance on Kurds in Iraq

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces continued on Tuesday their advance on Kurdish-held regions in the northern province of Kirkuk and other areas, forcing the Peshmerga to withdraw from regions it had gained during its fight against ISIS.

In a further blow to Kurdish dreams of independence, Iraqi forces took control of the two largest oil fields in Kirkuk. The fields accounted for around 250,000 barrels per day of the 650,000 bpd that the autonomous Kurdish region exported under its own auspices and their loss deals a huge blow to its already parlous finances and dreams of economic self-sufficiency.

Iraqi forces took down the red, white, green and yellow Kurdish flags that had flown over the pumping stations of the Bai Hassan and Havana oil fields and raised the national flag, an AFP photographer reported.

“With the loss of these fields, Kurdish finances have been cut in half,” French geographer and Kurdistan specialist Cyril Roussel told AFP.

The Kurds govern three mountainous northern provinces of Iraq in an autonomous region, and have also held a wide crescent of additional territory in northern Iraq, much of which they captured after helping drive out ISIS. The Peshmerga withdrew in the direction of their autonomous region in the northeast.

In the second day of a lightning government campaign to take back towns and countryside from forces of the Kurdish autonomous region, the Peshmerga pulled out of the long disputed Khanaqin area near the Iranian border.

The Baghdad government recaptured territory across the breadth of northern Iraq from Kurds on Tuesday, widening a sudden and dramatic campaign that has shifted the balance of power in the country almost overnight.

Government troops took control of the last two oil fields in the vicinity of Kirkuk, a city of 1 million people that the Peshmerga abandoned on Monday in the face of the government advance. A Yazidi group allied to Baghdad also took control of the town of Sinjar.

Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia in Sinjar, said the Peshmerga left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi forces to move in.

The government advances have redrawn the map of northern Iraq, rolling back gains by the Kurds who infuriated Baghdad last month by holding a referendum on independence.

The referendum, though not binding, reflected the Iraqi Kurds aspirations for independence for their autonomous northern region. The vote was rejected by the central government in Baghdad, as well as Turkey, Iran and the United States.

Prime Minister Haidar Abadi ordered his troops on Monday to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region itself. They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the center of the city in less than a day.

The advances create a dilemma for Washington, which is close allies of both Baghdad and the Kurds, and has armed and trained both sides as part of its successful campaign to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides,” President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Monday. “We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq.”

So far most of the advances appear to have come unopposed, with Kurds withdrawing before government forces move in. There have been reports of just one major clash, in the early hours of
Monday on the outskirts of Kirkuk, which Washington described as a misunderstanding.

For the Kurds, the loss of territory, particularly Kirkuk which Kurdish folklore views as the heart of their homeland, is a severe blow just three weeks after they voted to declare their decades-old objective of an independent state.

The setbacks have led to sharp accusations among the two main Kurdish political parties, which each control separate units of Peshmerga fighters.

Officials in the KDP of Kurdish regional government leader Masoud Barzani accused the PUK of his longterm rival Jalal Talabani of “treason” for abandoning Kirkuk. The widow of Talabani, who served as ceremonial Iraqi president in Baghdad from 2003-2014 and died two weeks ago, denied blame.

Talabani said her party tried, but failed, to make the Iraqi government renounce the ”plan to attack” Kirkuk through contacts with US and Iraqi government representatives.

Rudaw TV, one of the main Kurdish stations, said Barzani would soon make a statement calling on the Kurdish factions to avoid “civil war”.

Oil officials in Baghdad said all the oil fields near Kirkuk were working normally on Tuesday after the last of them came under government control. Kirkuk is the base of Iraq’s Northern Oil Company, one of the two giant state oil firms that provide nearly all government revenue.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars.

Kurdish residents said they felt betrayed by the Peshmerga’s hasty retreat after they had promised to fight to the last for the city.

“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away. But now the situation has stabilized, and people are returning to their homes. Nothing will happen, God willing, and Kirkuk will return to how it was,” said Amir Aydn, 28.

Baghdad Recaptures Kirkuk and its Oil without Resistance as Irbil Condemns ‘Treason’

Kirkuk

Baghdad, Washington, Irbil – Iraqi government forces and members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) seized control on Monday of the city of Kirkuk and pulled down the Kurdish flag from the province headquarters, amid reports of the displacement of Kurdish residents from the city.

It was surprising that Kirkuk fell without resistance, which pushed officials in the autonomous Kurdistan Region to speak about “treason” committed by the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for their collaboration with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Shakhuan Abdullah, a member of the Iraqi Parliament on the Committee for Security and Defense, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the PUK withdrawal from Kirkuk came following a meeting held in the city between Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds force and Bafel Talabani, son of late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Kurdish leaders spoke on Monday about a direct role played by Suleimani in pushing the Peshmerga to pull out of Kirkuk without resistance.

Residents in Kirkuk also spoke about a plan by leaders of the PUK with the support of Iraqi President Fouad Massoum and Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

The residents said that the attack on Kirkuk was the implementation of a warning sent from Suleimani in a message carried by Massoum to the Kurdish leaderships in the past few days.

Meanwhile, Kurdish sources were surprised by the US position regarding the latest developments in the area.

The sources explained Washington’s position as emanating from their desire to strengthen the chances of Abadi in the upcoming Iraqi elections and to thwart the possible return of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that Washington would not take sides in the Kirkuk dispute, but “we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”

For his part, Abadi “stressed the importance of avoiding the use of force and of seeking dialogue in order to preserve Iraq’s unity and long-term stability, while upholding the provisions of the Iraqi constitution.”

Meanwhile, informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Iraqi forces’ next step might see an advance towards the Mosul dam, located north of Kirkuk city.

Baghdad: Presence of PKK in Kirkuk is Declaration of War

Baghdad, Irbil- Baghdad accused Irbil on Sunday of bringing members from the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to Kirkuk, while it sent reinforcement from the army and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to the southern part of the disputed city, in an attempt to remove the oil-rich region from Kurdish control. 

Iraq’s National Security Council headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement Sunday that the presence of armed men is a “dangerous escalation” and a declaration of war, also warning from the presence of armed militias “not belonging to the regular security forces in Kirkuk, including some PKK fighters.”

Meanwhile, Muhammad Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander and leader of the Kurdish Socialist Party, told Asharq Al-Awsat that a meeting was held between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces on Saturday in Kirkuk in hopes of reaching a solution to the military crisis in the disputed areas.

Haj Mahmoud, however, denied being informed about the deployment of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards at the borderline between the two sides.

He said: “Peshmerga forces have fortified their positions in preparation for any incident. In Kurdistan, we confirm that we will not wage war. However, we will defend ourselves in case of an attack.”

Meanwhile in Irbil, Kurdish officials denied the presence of the PKK in Kirkuk.

“There are no PKK forces in Kirkuk, but there are some volunteers who sympathize with the PKK,” General Jabar Yawer, secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, told AFP.

A meeting of Kurdish leaders attended by Iraqi President Fouad Massoum and Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani was held in the town of Dukan in the Suleimaniya province on Sunday. 

The meeting ended with an agreement on five items, mainly to reject a demand from Baghdad to cancel the outcome of the independence referendum held last month as a precondition for talks on the dispute.

Following the meeting, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, who is also the KDP deputy head, said “the outcome of the referendum will not be nullified.”