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.”

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.

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.

Syrian Democratic Forces: US-Backed Kurdish-Arab Alliance

Raqqa

London – Kurdish fighters represent the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which seized on Tuesday control of the city of Raqqa from the ISIS terrorist group after a four-month offensive.

Comprised of Arab and Kurdish fighters, the SDF was formed in October 2015 in order to confront the extremist organization.

Backed by the US, it is considered the international coalition’s key ally in its war against ISIS. Washington has helped the SDF with airstrikes, weapons and expertise, which bolstered its ability to fight the extremists.

According to AFP, the alliance between the SDF and US has sparked major tensions with Ankara, which has not hesitated in the past in targeting the forces.

However, despite the various war fronts, all warring parties share ISIS as their common enemy.

The SDF was formed after US-backed Kurdish units achieved several victories against the extremists, most notably expelling them from the city of Kobane (Ain Arab) and Tal Abyad in 2015.

The advance has however created tensions with opposition factions that have accused the Kurds of forced displacement against Arab residents. It also raised fears in Ankara that the Kurds would seek autonomous rule in territories along the Turkish border.

To counter these tensions, the SDF was formed to include 30,000 fighters, among them 5,000 Arabs. Kurds however assume the command of the forces.

After the US-led coalition launched its first air strikes against ISIS in Syria in September 2014, Washington struggled to find a reliable partner on the ground.

A much-touted $500-million program to build a rebel army to fight ISIS collapsed. The SDF was the next best choice, especially after the Kurds proved to be fierce fighters.

After the SDF was formed, the White House announced the first sustained deployment of US special forces to Syria, reversing a longstanding refusal to put boots on the ground.

Around 50 special operations personnel were deployed in northern Syria, and the number has now grown to around 500 US troops. Senior US commanders and Washington’s envoy to the coalition Brett McGurk have met top SDF chiefs during visits to northern Syria.

Washington said in June it would supply weapons directly to the People’s Protection Units, the main Kurdish backbone of the SDF, despite objections from ally Turkey.

In November 2016, the SDF announced its operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” aimed at ousting ISIS from Raqqa province, including the group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

In the months that followed, the alliance gradually closed in on the city, first sweeping into territory to the north before closing in from the east and west.

In early June, SDF forces entered Raqqa for the first time, penetrating its Old City a month later after airstrikes by the US-led coalition smashed two holes in the ramparts.

By late September, SDF forces had taken control of 90 percent of the city, cornering ISIS fighters in Raqqa’s stadium, a few surrounding buildings and a major hospital.

On October 17, SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the US-backed fighters finally had “taken full control of Raqqa” from ISIS.

Eighteen Injured in Bomb Attack on Police Vehicle in Turkey’s Mersin

A bomb blast wrecked a bus carrying police officers on Tuesday in the southern Turkish province of Mersin.

According to the report cited by Reuters, the blast injured 18 people in an attack that security sources blamed on Kurdish militants.

Seventeen of those hurt were police officers, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told parliament, branding it a terrorist attack.

“Turkey’s battle against terror will continue under any circumstances in a strong and determined way,” Bozdag said.

Security sources said militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were believed to have carried out the attack. They also said that none of those wounded were in a critical condition.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Local mayor Burhanettin Kocamaz told broadcaster Haberturk the attack took place on a street where the local governor’s office was located and had hit the police vehicle as it passed.

Images from NTV showed smoke billowing from the area, in Mersin’s Yenisehir district. Ambulances, police and fire trucks were sent to the site of the attack, security sources said.

Turkey is battling a three-decade insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast. The PKK frequently carries out bomb attacks on security forces in the southeast and elsewhere.

The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union as well as by Turkey. More than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have died since it first took up arms against the state in 1984.

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.

Iraq Govt. Forces Launch Offensive on Kurdish-Held Kirkuk

Kirkuk

Iraqi government forces launched on Monday an offensive to retake territory seized by Kurds in Kirkuk in what is seen as response to last month’s Kurdish independence referendum, which was rejected by Baghdad.

The forces have so far seized a swathe of countryside surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk in a bold military response to the September 25 referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in favor of independence.

Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the vote.

The government said its troops had seized Kirkuk airport and had taken control of Northern Iraq’s oil company from the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, known as Peshmerga.

Iraqi oil industry officials said there was no disruption to production from the facilities of the Company, which is based in Kirkuk and one of the two main oil companies that together provide nearly all of Iraq’s government revenue.

The military action was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to rein in the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who have governed themselves as an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“We call on the Peshmerga forces to serve under the federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said in a statement which was read out on television. He ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”, the statement said.

State television said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi‘ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.

The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.

The city of Kirkuk itself remained under Kurdish control, 12 hours after the start of the Iraqi operation, but two routes in and out were under control of the Iraqi forces.

“We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings,” a military commander involved in the operation told Reuters, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.

Another military commander said: “Kurdish leaders we consider our brothers have agreed to hand over control of North Oil and North Gas company facilities that belong to the state.”

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Shi‘ite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

The Peshmerga and PMF exchanged artillery fire south of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official said. The official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by the PMF.

A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias announced they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.

He said federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he added that the PMF have not entered the city center. Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.

Neither side provided a toll of casualties.

Major General Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press that his Kurdish forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.

“We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”

US forces which have worked closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS called on both sides to avoid escalation.

It said it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces was a “misunderstanding.”

It continued that it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”

The US-led task international force in Iraq was “closely monitoring (the situation) near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all,” a spokesman said on Twitter.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in the United States, tweeted a plea for Washington to “use (its) leadership role to prevent war”.

Major General Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” ISIS.

The action in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

Baghdad considers last month’s Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region itself but in territory in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, which the Peshmerga seized after driving out ISIS.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbors Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.

Abadi’s government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved almost unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.

Kurds: Baghdad Gives Ultimatum on Kirkuk Pullback

Baghdad has set a pre-dawn Sunday deadline for Kurdish forces to abandon positions in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk they took during the fightback against ISIS more than three years ago, a senior Kurdish official said.

“The deadline set for the peshmerga to return to their pre-June 6, 2014 positions will expire during the night,” the Kurdish official told AFP.

Asked at what time, he said 2 am on Sunday (2300 GMT Saturday).

The alleged ultimatum comes as thousands of Iraqi troops and the Popular Mobilization Forces are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters near ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk.

Tensions have soared between the erstwhile allies in the war against ISIS since a Kurdish vote for independence last month.

Tens of thousands of peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000
have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has said.

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km to 10 km south
of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions, including in Taza Khurmatu, without incident.

Also Saturday, Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, held urgent talks with Kurdish leaders in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the south of the autonomous Kurdish region.

In June 2014, ISIS militants swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting many Iraqi army units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.

They did so primarily in historically Kurdish-majority areas they had long sought to incorporate in their three-province autonomous region in the north against the strong opposition of Baghdad.

The Kurds currently control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province which account for a significant share of the regional government’s oil revenues.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that the US was working to reduce tensions between Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces, urging them to remain focused on the war against terrorists.

“We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy, and at the same time recognizing that we have got to find a way to move forward,” he told reporters.

“Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want to go to a shooting situation,” he added.