News compilation published on New Cold War.org, Oct 16, 2017
Iraqi forces taking over Kirkuk ‘a declaration of war’ – Kurdish Peshmerga
RT.com, Monday, Oct 16, 2017 (and further below, reports in New York Times and in Rudaw (Iraqi Kurdish) news agency, Oct 16, 2017, on Kurdish fighters in Kirkuk surrendering the city to Iraqi forces)
Iraqi soldiers have raised their country’s flags over key buildings in Kirkuk, and Baghdad has declared the Kurdish city be under government control. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces called the takeover “a flagrant declaration of war” and vowed that Iraq will pay a “heavy price.”
The Iraqi government forces have taken full control of Kirkuk, Al Jazeera and Sky News Arabia report, citing the central government in Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s has ordered to raise the Iraqi flag over the city and other Kurdish-controlled areas.
The “attack” on Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk by Iraqi troops is “a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan,” the Peshmerga General Command said in a statement earlier, as cited by Rudaw. The Peshmerga described Baghdad’s move as “retaliation against the right of the people to vote on their fate,” referring to last month’s referendum on Kurdistan’s independence, in which 92.7 percent voted to secede from Iraq.
The Monday developments reveal a split in Kurdish factions, as some of the militias were reported to leave Kirkuk without a fight amid reports of clashes between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga.
In a statement, the Peshmerga accused a faction from one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of “plotting” against the Kurds and committing “a great and historic treason.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi earlier said the operation was aimed at protecting the unity of Iraq following Kurdistan’s independence vote. “It is my constitutional duty to work for the benefit of the citizens and to protect our national unity that came under threat of fragmentation as a result of the referendum that was organized by the Kurdish region,” al-Abadi said in a statement.
The Prime Minister added that the vote was held in violation of the constitution and said that the Kurds “chose their personal interests over Iraq’s interests.”
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani ordered Peshmerga forces to not attack the Iraqi military first, but gave a “green light to use every power” to fight against the advancing forces, according to Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to Barzani.
The US-led anti-Islamic State coalition claimed that the maneuvers “of military vehicles and personnel” in the vicinity of Kirkuk “so far have been coordinated movements, not attacks,” while the clashes between Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces were a mere “misunderstanding.”
“Coalition forces and advisers are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness October 16. We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions,” the coalition said in a statement.
Hundreds of people in Kirkuk took to the streets to celebrate the takeover of the city by Iraqi government forces. A video posted on social media shows a group of people with Iraqi flags greeting government troops in front of the city’s governorate building.
The majority of demonstrators are reportedly of Arab or Turkmen origin, while thousands of ethnic Kurds fled the city alongside the Peshmerga forces. Some ethnic Kurds, however, also appear to be welcoming the government troops.
Oil field control
Immediately after the Iraqi forces made their Kirkuk move, conflicting reports began coming in about the Kurdish-controlled oil fields and facilities in the region. Media reports indicate two oilfields – Bai Hassan and Avana – shut down production.
The reports were followed by indirect threats from Baghdad. Iraqi forces could be deployed “in a very short time” to regain control over Kirkuk oilfields and restart oil production, a senior Iraqi oil official was cited by Reuters as saying. “We will not allow them to shut down production. We’ve got confirmation from military commanders that it’s a matter of a very short time,” the official said.
The Kurdish Ministry of Natural Resources, however, tweeted that the reports were “not true.”
Earlier, a spokesman for North Oil Company said the oil ministry had warned the Kurdish authorities against any action “that would cause crude oil flow disruption from Kirkuk oilfield.” The company has asked the central government and oil ministry to deploy “security forces to intervene and prevent Kurdish crews from mismanaging production,” according to the spokesman.
Ethnic makeup of Iraq population, Source: CIA Factbook:
* Population of Iraq: 39,192,111 (July 2017 est.)
* Ethnicities: Arab 75%-80%; Kurdish 15%-20%; Turkmen, Assyrian, Shabak, Yazidi, other 5%
Also on RT:
Oil prices rising as Iraqi forces advance on Kurdish-held territory, Oct 16, 2017
Iraqi military advances in Kirkuk, captures key positions from Kurdish forces, Oct 16, 2017
Why Iraq is taking back Kirkuk, and what the U.S. will [or won’t] do about it, Oct 16, 2017
Iraqi forces clash with Kurdish militia
By Joe Lauria, Consortium News, Oct 16, 2017
Overreaction in Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran to what in essence was a symbolic vote for independence by Iraqi Kurds last month has brought the Iraqi government to the brink of full-scale war with Kurdish authorities over the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
According to the latest reports, the Iraqi army on Sunday night launched a military operation to take back the city and its environs. So far it has seized a military base occupied by Kurdish forces as well as Kirkuk airport.
The Iraqi army had built up its forces outside the oil-producing city over the past several days while the Kurdish peshmerga militia re-enforced the town with 6,000 fighters. According to peshmerga intelligence, the Iranian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Shi’ite militias joined Iraq’s military build-up.
Some peshmerga units fled from advancing Iraqi forces on Monday, while others have stood their ground and engaged in clashes. The long dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over control of Kirkuk may well come to a head if the Iraqi army enters the city, where fighting could be intense.
All this came about because of a referendum for independence held on Sept. 25, in which 93 percent of Kurds voted to leave Iraq. However, Kurdish leaders repeatedly made clear they would not declare independence, despite their overwhelming mandate. Instead they want a one- to two-year negotiation with Baghdad to achieve sovereignty.
That has been flatly rejected by the central government, which asserted that there would be no negotiations for independence. Regionally, the Kurds also are isolated. Only one country openly supported the referendum and said it would recognize Kurdish independence – Israel.
Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed quasi-independence since the 2003 U.S. invasion. It has its own flag, army, and government ministries, and issues its own visas to foreign visitors. It has a robust oil industry, selling petroleum illegally through Turkey. Massive corruption and mismanagement however has not allowed the Kurds to build a modern state. It has no railroad, only one stretch of a highway inside the Kurdish capital city Erbil; government workers go months without pay; and the regional government cannot provide electricity without frequent power cuts throughout the day.
A risky fantasy
Despite a legitimate argument to be a sovereign state, the idea of independence in the current political climate was a fantasy.
Except for the Kurds, it was a meaningless referendum. The vote was also a political move to build support for the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party in presidential and parliamentary elections in two weeks, on Nov. 1. Otherwise, this referendum was not unlike a 2005 independence vote, which also garnered more than 90 percent in favor, but which also went nowhere.
The Kurdish vote has made negotiations with Baghdad over oil, Kirkuk and other disputed territories virtually impossible, as the central government demanded Erbil first cancel the referendum’s results. A planned 2007 referendum for the people of Kirkuk to decide whether they wanted to belong to Baghdad or Erbil was never held. Instead the fate of the city appears set to be decided by force of arms.
Given the tense, but stable situation, last month’s referendum could have been simply ignored by its opponents. It would have died of its own accord. Instead the governments of Iraq, Turkey and Iran have severely overreacted, giving it more legitimacy than it had on its own.
Turkey and Iran feared the vote could stir up their own restive Kurdish populations who already have been agitating for years. Turkey has fought a 30-year insurgency against its Kurds, and Iran periodically puts down uprisings. Turkish and Iranian Kurds did not need an Iraqi Kurdish referendum to continue pursuing their separatist aims.
For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, however, the overly strong reaction to the vote bolsters his domestic political support ahead of parliamentary elections next April. It is a reckless electioneering strategy risking bloodshed.
On Sept. 29, Baghdad imposed an international flight ban on the Kurdish region. On Sunday, Iran closed its three border crossings with the Kurdish region and has cut off all trade.
Border crossings from Turkey have been taken over inside Turkish territory by the central government. But so far Turkey has not cut off billions of dollars of exports to the landlocked Iraqi Kurds. Ankara is still importing the banned Kurdish oil, which Baghdad has demanded be sold through the central government.
The Iraqi military has been conducting joint exercises with Turkish and Iranian troops just kilometers from the Kurdish borders with those countries. Baghdad gave Erbil a 2 a.m. Sunday deadline to cancel the referendum and pull the peshmerga out of Kirkuk.
According to a local media report, Baghdad’s other demands were to turn over Kirkuk airport; return an Iraqi military base; give back all oil fields; hand over ISIS prisoners held by the peshmerga; permit the Iraqi army to return to positions it vacated when ISIS attacked the city in 2014, which allowed the peshmerga to take control of the city; and remove the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk governorate, who was fired by the Iraqi parliament but who has refused to step down. The Iraqi army now has enforced the first three demands.
Like the rest of the world, the U.S. opposed the referendum and urged negotiations. On Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said: “We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation. These are issues that are longstanding in some cases … We’re going to have to recalibrate and move these back to a way (in which) we solve them politically and work them out with compromised solutions.”
Yet Washington was unable to stop the Iraqi army’s advance on Kirkuk and the possibility of a new conflict breaking out in the Middle East.
Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist. He has written for the Boston Globe, the Sunday Times of London and the Wall Street Journal among other newspapers. He is the author of How I Lost By Hillary Clinton published by OR Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @unjoe.
Notes by New Cold War.org:
 Israel’s supposed support to Kurdish “independence” is a poison pill, the sincerity of which is belied by Israel’s ongoing war against Palestinian self-determination.
 This phrasing by the author is similar to Western media phrasing that hides the gruesome civil war being waged by the Turkish government against the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey. That includes destruction of towns and cities and widespread jailings of elected members of Turkey’s national assembly and municipalities. Particularly targetted have been elected representatives of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP is the third-largest party in the national assembly. (See: Jailed Kurdish leader Selhattin Dermitas keeps in touch with supporters through arts, literature, report on Al-Monitor, Oct 13, 2017. For daily news of Turkey, see Turkish Minute.)
 The author’s statement is inaccurate. Kurdish leaders in Turkey and Syria, at least, have stated that they are not engaged in a fight for Kurdish independence but rather for federalism (or call it regional autonomy). As well, the author fails to mention that the Russian government has long voiced support for federalism in Turkey and Syria. It is the only major government involved in the conflicts in the Middle East to voice support for political self-dtermination for the Kurdish people.
Iraqi forces take Kirkuk, lower Kurdistan flag, by Rudaw news agency, Oct 16, 2017
Kurdish groups in Iran welcome Trump’s Iran strategy, ask for more teeth, by Rudaw news agency, Oct 15, 2017
Turkey ready to cooperate with Iraq to eradicate PKK from Kirkuk province in Iraqi Kurdistan, report in Press TV, Oct 16, 2017
Iran wary of Trump’s plans in Iraqi Kurdistan, by Fazel Hawramy, Al-Monitor, Oct 12, 2017
Kurdish referendum inspires statehood for Iraq’s Sunnis too, by Adnan Abu Zeed, Al-Monitor, Oct 12, 2017
Last month’s Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq has inspired some of Iraq’s Sunni leaders to call for their own autonomous state in its Sunni areas.
Turkmens unite against Kurdish designs on Kirkuk, by Hamdi Malik, Al-Monitor, Oct 10, 2017
The Sept. 25 referendum, in which voters overwhelmingly voted for independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, increased the division between the Turkmen and Kurdish populations in the disputed city of Kirkuk. But Turkmens believe the Kurdish move, which raised objections from several parties, offers an opportunity to strengthen their position in Iraq…
Iraqi forces sweep into Kirkuk, checking Kurdish independence drive
By David Zucchin, New York Times, Monday, Oct 16, 2017 (with video at original weblink)
KIRKUK, Iraq — After weeks of threats and posturing, the Iraqi government carried out a military assault on Monday to curb the independence drive by the nation’s Kurdish minority, wresting oil fields and a contested city from separatists pushing to break away from Iraq.
The deadly clashes pitted two crucial American allies against each other, with government forces seizing Kirkuk from Kurds who had intended to build a separate nation in the northern third of Iraq.
The Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq in a referendum three weeks ago. The United States, Baghdad and most countries in the region had condemned the vote, fearing it would fuel ethnic divisions, lead to the breakup of Iraq and hobble the fight against the Islamic State.
Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are both essential elements of the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Both forces are supplied and trained by the United States.
Despite the resounding success of the referendum, Iraqi forces were able to take Kirkuk in a single day and with little fight, partly because it is a multiethnic city of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, and partly because the Kurds themselves were divided.
Baghdad had forged an agreement with the Kurdish faction that controlled most of the strategic points of Kirkuk, allowing government forces to sweep into much of the city without firing a shot. But skirmishes with another Kurdish faction left nearly 30 dead and dozens wounded, according to local hospitals.
As Iraqi troops rolled into this city of about one million, Arab and Turkmen residents fired weapons into the air in celebration. Cheering crowds looked on as Iraqi forces removed a Kurdish flag that had flown over the Kirkuk governor’s compound and left intact an Iraqi flag mounted beside it, local officials said. Iraqi troops drove through the city, removing pesh merga flags and banners and replacing them with Iraqi flags.
While Iraq’s future remains far from secure, the momentum has clearly swung in Baghdad’s favor. Its forces have now beaten back existential challenges on two fronts, pushing the Islamic State out of major cities and retaking a critical oil region from the Kurds.
Neither battle is over. But the Islamic State, which three years ago controlled a third of the country, has been reduced to a handful of desert outposts and a small city on the Syrian border, while the Kurds may now have to defer their independence dreams.
The referendum, which had Kurds celebrating in the streets three weeks ago, has now clearly backfired. The Kurdish region depends heavily on oil revenue, roughly half of it from the Kirkuk region, and the independence vote alienated the United States and angered neighbors.
“They may have made a miscalculation of historic proportions by proceeding with the referendum over the objections of just about everyone who counts,” said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The Kirkuk operation also exposed deep divisions within the Kurdish command, as fighters loyal to a Kurdish opposition party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi forces even as other fighters loyal to the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party continued to resist.
The Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani spearheaded the referendum, which most Kurds saw as a historic step toward achieving the national dream of an independent homeland. But critics accused Mr. Barzani of staging the vote to deflect attention from the Kurdish region’s troubled economy and what they consider to be Mr. Barzani’s authoritarian rule.
Moreover, and especially irksome to Baghdad, the vote included disputed territory outside the boundaries of the autonomous Kurdish region, including Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields. Kurdish forces seized that territory in 2014 after Iraqi troops fled an Islamic State assault, but Baghdad has never accepted Kurdish control there.
After the referendum vote, Iraqi authorities gave the Kurds an ultimatum, to annul the vote or face military action. But over the last few days, even as Iraq massed troops in the Kirkuk region, Baghdad insisted it had no plans to carry out a military assault on Kirkuk. As recently as Friday, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said the military “cannot and will not attack our citizens, whether Arab or Kurd,” and dismissed reports to the contrary as “fake news.”
In the last few days, emissaries from Baghdad conducted secret talks with Kurdish opposition forces to negotiate their withdrawal.
Wista Raool, commander of opposition pesh merga forces south of Kirkuk, said the opposition sought to return the oil fields to the federal government. He accused Mr. Barzani and his party of “stealing” the oil from the Iraqi government.
Still, fighting broke out between advancing government forces and pesh merga fighters from Mr. Barzani’s faction. A Kurdish commander, Gen. Mohammed Raiger, said his forces had mounted a counterattack about 15 miles west of the city. He said reinforcements with “sophisticated weapons” had arrived to support Kurdish fighters in the area.
A statement by the Kurdish government’s security council said pesh merga fighters had destroyed five American-supplied Humvees used by Iraqi forces, and would continue to resist them.
According to reports from hospitals in Kirkuk Province, 22 pesh merga fighters were killed in fighting on Monday, along with 7 Iraqi soldiers. Eleven Kurdish fighters were wounded, as well as four Iraqi soldiers and 54 civilians.
In a statement Monday afternoon, the American-led coalition played down any skirmishes as accidental. The clashes were precipitated by “a misunderstanding,” the statement said, and were “not deliberate as two elements tried to link up under limited visibility conditions” at night. Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad, said American forces in the area were watching the situation, but were not involved in the fighting. “We are monitoring the situation closely and strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions,” he said. “We opposed violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability.”
While Washington has called for calm, analysts said the United States was content to sit this one out, still fuming that Mr. Barzani had turned down an American offer to preside over open-ended negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the vote. Analysts said the United States sat back quietly as Mr. Barzani’s position eroded in the face of retaliation by Baghdad, which first ended international flights to the Kurdish region and then cut a deal with his rivals to take Kirkuk.
By Monday night, the Barzani government had made no public statement on the day’s events. Officials in Baghdad said the provincial governor, Najmaldin O. Karim, had left Kirkuk for Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region. Mr. Karim could not be reached for comment. He was dismissed by Baghdad earlier this year, but remained in office because Kurdish fighters controlled the city.
Military commanders in Baghdad said their troops had taken control of an industrial district on the western edge of Kirkuk, a power plant and refinery adjacent to the oil fields outside the city and a military airport west of the city. Iraqi troops also removed a Kurdish flag from a large statue of a pesh merga fighter that Kurdish leaders had erected at the gates to the city. They raised an Iraqi flag in its place, according to local officials, in line with an order from Mr. Abadi for troops to raise the Iraqi flag in all disputed areas reclaimed by government forces.
The big question now is whether forces loyal to Mr. Barzani will fight on or back off. On Monday, his forces remained dug into positions near oil fields northwest of the city that the Kurds have controlled since 2014.
The commander there, Kamal Karkokly, said in an interview at his command post on Sunday that his fighters would not surrender their positions. “We have enough weapons,” he said. “We can fight as long as we have to.”
If Mr. Barzani’s forces continue to resist, Mr. Hiltermann said, “It wouldn’t be their first miscalculation in the last 30 days.”
After Kirkuk, Kurdish forces pull out of more areas in Iraq, Associated Press, Oct 17, 2017
Iraqi forces behead killed Peshmerga in Kirkuk battle: Rudaw reporter
Timeline of events in Kirkuk, by Rudaw news agency, Oct 16, 2017
A number of Peshmerga were beheaded by Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia during confrontations to capture the city of Kirkuk on Monday, according to a Rudaw reporter who witnessed the events.
Rudaw’s Hevidar Ahmed reporting from the scene revealed that, among the Peshmerga killed by Hashd al-Shaabi, some were beheaded. Ahmed, who reported on the course of clashes between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, said that in the beginning, the Peshmerga put up a fierce defense. But the Hashd al-Shaabi widened their advance, at which point many Peshmerga were wounded and killed.
He saw the bodies of as many as 10 Peshmerga piled into the back of a pick-up truck. They had all been beheaded. Wounded Peshmerga were put into another vehicle.
He said the Peshmerga were beheaded by a group of Hashd al-Shaabi trained after the Mosul operation started last year.
Inside Kirkuk, Hashd al-Shaabi have set up security checkpoints inspecting civilians. Ahmed said he saw instances of supporters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) being permitted to pass, but others linked with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were disarmed and insulted.
Ahmed also said there were looting and burning of Kurdish homes in Tuz Khurmatu by the Hashd al-Shaabi. He reported that 150 Kurdish houses were looted and 15 burned. He added the bulk of Kurdish families from Khurmatu had fled to Erbil and Sulaimani.
As an eyewitness, Ahmed said much of the frontline was abandoned by the Peshmerga without a fight.