No, It Wasn’t Iran: Top 7 Reasons Baghdad took Kirkuk

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Iraqi Army and its Shiite militia adjuncts have taken Kirkuk city and raised the Iraqi flag over the state house, taking down the Kurdistan flag. They also have an army base and oil fields in Kirkuk province, which they are returning to the control of Baghdad after it was annexed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2014.

The Kurdistan paramilitary, the Peshmerga, are vowing that Arab Iraq “will pay a heavy price” for militarily retaking Kirkuk.

The Beltway Bandits are alleging that Iran was behind Baghdad’s retaking of the province of Kirkuk from the KRG. Iran played a role, but the allegation is just silly. Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi couldn’t have survived politically if he had not taken Kirkuk back, and it was the Baghdad government’s idea. Iraqi army infantry and armored divisions were deployed. The Shiite militiamen who fought alongside government troops had Iranian training and advice, but they were adjuncts, not the main force.

Since Donald Trump just tried to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, the inside-the Beltway think tanks are suddenly finding it under every bed, along with consulting gold. It is true that Iran wants to take the Iraqi Kurds down a notch, for fear its own Kurds will get uppity. The IRGC is influential for the Badr Corps and the Interior Ministry in Iraq. But the Ministry of Defense reports to Abadi, and he was the driving force here.

The Kurds had predominated in three provinces in the old Iraq. After the Gulf War they more or less seceded and made their three provinces into one super-province. It was uneasily reintegrated into American Iraq from 2003. In September 2017, the Kurds tried to declare independence and they tried unilaterally to add a fourth Iraq province to their KRG. Baghdad would naturally react against this threat of secession. I am not saying Kurds don’t deserve their own state; I am saying that President Massoud Barzani of the KRG was being unrealistic. He heads a small territory that is landlocked and depends on others for export of its petroleum. Since those neighbors didn’t want the referendum, why be surprised at his difficulties? I was against the US dividing up Iraq when it was the occupying power, but now that Iraqis are sovereign it is up to them to negotiate their conflicts. I certainly I understand after everything Saddam Hussein did to the Iraqi Kurds why they want independence. And the downside of Abadi’s invasion of Kirkuk and the fleeing of Kurds from the province is that it reminds Kurds of how the old Baath army used to behave.

So how did all this happen?

1. The vacuum in US leadership meant there was no one with any authority to tell Massoud Barzani not to hold the referendum on independence. Even in the midst of this crisis, Trump yesterday declared himself as neutral as Switzerland. If the neutrality were so Trump could swing into action as a mediator, that would maybe be useful, but he appears not to have the slightest interest in getting involved. Not since 1940 has the US stood aside as a minor, neutral player in the midst of important crises.

2. The Kirkuk oil fields were doing 800,000 barrels a day of petroleum production before 2014, and while they are small and old compared to the Rumaila fields near Basra, no Baghdad government was going to let the KRG unilaterally just walk off with that resource.

3. Both Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Kirkuk, a plurality of the population, minded the KRG annexation of 2014, and if Abadi’s Baghdad government wants to get back the allegiance of the Sunni Arabs, it has to show decisiveness on this issue.

4. The Iraqi Army had many weapons and much training from the United States (given to fight ISIL), and they used this American-supplied weaponry at Kirkuk. The US military is upset that its weapons are being used against the Kurds and have threatened to stop supplying them to Baghdad..

5. The Kurds were divided. Three major parties dominate the politics of the Kurdistan Regional Government. These are the center-right Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani, the center-left Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Bafel Talabani, and the progressive, anti-corruption Party for Change (Gorran) of Omar Said Ali. It was Barzani’s KDP that spearheaded September’s referendum on Kurdistan independence, and while the others went along with it in public, there are rumors that they were unenthusiastic about the likely fall-out of Barzani’s adventurism. These divisions are one explanation for the events in Kirkuk.

6. The southern part of Kirkuk province and the city of Kirkuk were in the hands of the PUK paramilitary or Peshmerga. PUK commanders abruptly withdrew before the Iraqi Army’s advance and that of the Shiite militias. Kurdish media outlet Rudaw said, “The KDP media have blamed the armed forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of having first “abandoned” their positions on the outskirts of Kirkuk.” (BBC monitoring). Some are alleging that the PUK made a separate deal with the Iraqi Army to withdraw. Certainly, rank and file Peshmerga troops say they were abandoned by their officers as Iraqi forces neared the city of Kirkuk. They say, however, that both PUK and KDP Peshmerga commanders faded away. It seems likely that the PUK Peshmerga officer corps considers Barzani’s move to independence to be an unwise stunt, and they refused to die for Barzani’s ego.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Al Jazeera English: “”

8 Responses

  1. This may be the chance Iraq has been waiting for to once again make war on the Kurds. The U.S.A. having had the support of the Kurds no longer need them and thus don’t care what happens to them. Of course this might not turn out so well for Iraq or the U.S.A. If the Kurds are involved in keeping their heads on, they may have no interest in fighting ISIS and ISIS may decide to have a good run at IRAQ once again. This time the Kurds may simply tell them all, you’re on you’re own and tell ISIS, they don’t have to worry about them, they’re not interested in helping Iraq or the Americans.

    if Iraq has a lot of advanced weapons, who knows they may decide to bomb the Kurds out of existence. They have served their purpose. It really is too bad the Kurds have not been awarded their own country. They might be a stabilizing force in the middle east.

  2. Trump says he will stay out of the clash. Many consider that a bad move, inconsistent with US broader purposes. However, it is consistent with his intention expressed on the campaign trail, an intention most of the world, and I imagine many US citizens, viewed with welcome, if doubting, expectation.

  3. Great reporting Professor Cold, very informative.

    After reading this article, I get the feeling that Donald Trump will soon appear in front of the cameras, whereas Bombastic Don will play the role of LBJ describing ‘his version’ of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, only this time it will be Iran who fired the first shot, and again we are a fooled nation off to another war. After all, isn’t this what ‘Great Again’ Nations do? Also, how else, other than taking the country to war, could the Idiotic President Orange get a bump up in his favorability ratings? Plus, Trump appears to be the type that would love to throw ‘a bigly, most beautifully bigly war, like never seen before by the eyes of mankind’. Oh god, it would be so appropriate if the American Empire were to have as it’s final hoorah the Outrageous Commander and Mouth in charge. Very fitting indeed, for a once great society to end this way. I just hope our grandchildren can rebuild this fine land, and restore it to it’s once proud humble self again. This time maybe, the new National Anthem will be ‘America the Beautiful’ and the Ray Charles version will be the standard for how it gets played.

    • Second chances are historically unlikely for collapsed empires. The British, French and Dutch only got bailed out because the Marshall Plan shielded them. Nobody’s going to go that far for our sorry asses.

      But there are degrees of collapse.

      • Rebuilding can be generational, is it not? Generosity during a time of retribution is where real friends maybe found, if there ever were any to begin with. Also the simplicity of a solution isn’t always the first plan to be put to the test, as regimes come and go. I truly wish that the U.S. may somehow change from within. That is if the tools of good governance and the citizens will is still there to do this transformation, that this country so badly needs.

        Good hearing from you super390 Joe

  4. Good post, Juan. Just two additions from me.

    The first, which I think I saw you make awhile ago, is that Barzani probably did this partly due to a weakened economy in KRG territory arising from the lower price of oil recently compared to recent years. This was undermining his political position, which was (and is) highly questionable given that there was supposed to be an election back in 2015, which he canceled, meaning that he is not really legally in office at the current time. So, not just his ego, but his political survival may have been behind this nationalistic assertion, which may yet prove to be a mistake and lead to his downfall, with him clearly not expecting to lose Kirkuk and its oil to the central government, big mistake.

    The other has to do with his timing vis a vis the struggle against Daesh/ISIS/ISIL. I thought this move might lead to a weakening of the fight against Daesh, but in fact it may be that on this Barzani took advantage of the near ending of that fight, with Daesh down to only a few border towns within Iraq at this point in time, and the Kurds whom the US is working with, who apparently have just completed defeating Daesh in their official capital in Syria of Raqqa, are separate from the factions in KRG, if my understanding is correct. So, while this may lead to a breakdown of anti-Daesh cooperation, it looks like maybe the need for that cooperation is basically over, at least in Iraq, even if there are still some final bastions to defeat in Syria and just on the border inside Iraq.

  5. Another aspect of this is that according to some sources this fall of Kirkuk has cut off production of oil production by about 350,000 barrels per day. This adds to the upward pressure on world oil prices currently going on.

  6. I think Barzani saw his position vis-a-vis Baghdad and his Kurdish rivals weakening as the ISIS war winds down, and thought Turkey would support him as counterweight to the PKK and maybe to Baghdad as well. But he miscalculated on all fronts – neither Baghdad nor Tehran nor Ankara will tolerate Kurdish independence, although the latter two are comfortable with autonomy.

Comments are closed.