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Iraqi Forces Sweep Into Kirkuk, Checking Kurdish Independence Drive

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."

[Source: By David Zucchino, The New York Times, Kirkuk, 16Oct17]

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small logoThis document has been published on 18Oct17 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.