Scenes From a Failed Secession

As the Iraqi government reclaimed the city of Kirkuk, Kurdish troops had the choice to watch or flee.

An Iraqi boy drags a Kurdish flag as Iraqi forces advance toward the center of Kirkuk on Oct. 16. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi boy drags a Kurdish flag as Iraqi forces advance toward the center of Kirkuk on Oct. 16. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

KIRKUK, Iraq — As Iraqi federal forces entered southern Kirkuk on Monday, Kurdish Peshmerga convoys were leaving via the north. Left behind in the city, though, were roving bands of enraged Kurdish citizens with guns, who alongside hardened fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) vowed to fight to the death.

“The fight will start tonight,” predicted Ako Hassan as he fingered his rifle in southern Kirkuk. “People will fight, people will die. We won’t let them come in.”

Hassan, a Kurd from the regional capital of Erbil, had rushed to Kirkuk when he heard of an Iraqi military operation to retake the city. He stood among an unsure-looking bunch of lightly armed Kurds, who, despite their rhetoric, seemed to realize they stood little chance against the convoy of armored Humvees that, at the moment, were rolling toward them just a few miles down the road. One old man with an ancient bolt-action rifle slung across his shoulder tore off on a scooter only to return minutes later: The federal forces were coming, he reported.

As the men stood anxiously in the road, it was not clear whether Iraq was on the brink of another civil war.

The event that precipitated this crisis occurred last month, when Iraqi Kurds held a referendum on independence against the wishes of Baghdad and the international community. Most galling for Baghdad was the fact that the vote was also held in disputed territories like Kirkuk — an apparent power play to cement Kurdish control over territories they had claimed in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, since 2014.

Just weeks ago, Kurdish control over Kirkuk looked unassailable. Kurdish flags hung from government buildings, and a brand-new 85-foot-tall statue of a Kurdish fighter stood guard at the northern entrance to the city.

But after the referendum, Kurds found themselves facing a united front made up of Baghdad, Turkey, and Iran, which all opposed the vote. Critically for the Kurds, the United States also never came out in their support.

“We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities,” coalition commander Maj. Gen. Robert White said on Monday as federal forces rolled into Kirkuk. “All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS.”

The Kurds were hoping the referendum would provide them with a stronger hand in secession talks. Instead, they found Baghdad adopting a hardball strategy of its own as Iraqi officials began demanding Kirkuk’s return to federal control.

Following 11th-hour negotiations and an ultimatum on Sunday night from Baghdad for Kurdish forces to pull back, Peshmerga units withdrew from the city and its surrounding military installations and oil fields largely without a fight. The international coalition against the Islamic State categorized the Iraqi military operation around Kirkuk as “coordinated movements, not attacks.”

As the Peshmerga departed, thousands of panicked Kurdish families also packed up and fled, fearful of sectarian violence. “They’re saying the Shiite militias are coming — we’re scared of them,” said Ezzidin Sadiq from a pickup truck filled with family members stuck in traffic north of Kirkuk. “I don’t know where I’m going.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insisted the military operation would not be directed at citizens. His office on Monday said the prime minister “reiterates the priority of the Iraqi forces to protect the people of Kirkuk and calls on citizens to cooperate with them.”

Gunmen like Hassan were left to skirmish with the army alone. While some were killed and injured, most soon melted away as the Iraqis advanced. “The PUK and KDP sold us out,” said Alan Ahmad, a young fighter who remained behind in the city after the Peshmerga withdrew, referring to the dominant Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, respectively.

By early afternoon, federal forces had lowered the Kurdish flag from the governor’s office, and posts on social media showed federal Humvees parked next to the statue of the Peshmerga soldier.

Crucially, federal forces had also taken control of Kirkuk’s oil fields. Without the oil produced by the Kirkuk fields, the Kurdistan Regional Government will struggle to service its costs and debts and will likely face an unpalatable choice between penury and begging Baghdad for resumption of budget payments, which were suspended during a dispute over oil revenues in 2015.

By evening, an uneasy calm seemed to preside over much of the city. Some Kirkuk residents turned out to welcome the return of federal forces. A federal police officer appeared on television insisting that the city was safe and urging citizens who had fled to return home.

Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, slung accusations of treason at each other. Hemin Hawrami, an advisor to Kurdish President and KDP leader Masoud Barzani, tweeted: “We reassure Kurdistan people despite the Iraqis, & IRGC [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] plots and treason of some officials, Peshmerge [sic] are defending heroically.”

The reality on the ground, however, was impossible to ignore. Both PUK and KDP Peshmerga had left their positions around Kirkuk. The Kurds’ independence gamble on the disputed territories had failed. The federal government’s brinkmanship — which earlier in the day had looked as if it might precipitate war — looked for the moment to have succeeded.

Campbell MacDiarmid is an Erbil-based freelance journalist covering conflict, international law, and humanitarian issues. Twitter: @CampbellMacD

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