Kurdish and Iraqi government forces have squared off south of Kirkuk after rushing troops and armour to the oil-rich city two weeks after the country’s Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad.
Peshmerga forces massed about 20 miles from Kirkuk’s southern limits on Friday after units loyal to the central government took positions on the city’s approaches, prompting fears of fresh violence in one of the most bitterly contested corners of Iraq.
By nightfall the likelihood of an imminent battle for the ethnically diverse city had dissipated, with political leaders on both sides trying to calm nerves. The Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, who is commander-in-chief of the country’s military, insisted he had no plans to launch an attack.
Peshmerga units, loyal to the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] – one of two rival power bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, had earlier withdrawn from three districts to the south, allowing the Iraqi army to move in. Shia forces supporting them made a series of threats to storm the city as soon as early as Friday night. The Iraqi push has captured 72 square kilometres.
Though couched as necessary to take up defensive positions further north, the PUK withdrawal highlighted the complex geopolitics surrounding the aftermath of the referendum, which was bitterly opposed by Iran, Baghdad and Turkey and has since led to a blockade of the region by all three powers.
Concerns remained high in Erbil that Peshmerga units from the PUK – which is supported by Iran, and whose troops are heavily deployed south of Kirkuk – may make more withdrawals, allowing Iraqi forces to advance further.
Such a move would weaken the Kurds’ hold on the city that they had coveted throughout their history and had seized in mid-2014, after Iraqi forces had fled from the Islamic State extremists who had rampaged towards them after sacking Mosul.
It would, however, satisfy Iran, which is allied to the PUK. The rival Kurdish faction, the KDP, led by the region’s de facto president Masoud Barzani, has traditionally been an ally of Turkey, although that relationship has been seriously frayed in the wake of the referendum, in which Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Baghdad.
Iranian general Qasem Suleimani, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, had told Kurdish leaders ahead of the poll that he would not stop Shia forces from the Popular Mobilisation Front from attacking Kirkuk if the ballot went ahead.
Baghdad had not accepted the Kurdish claim on the city, which is comprised of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and had been bitterly opposed to Kurdish officials selling oil from the Kirkuk fields through a pipeline to Turkey.
The US, which is an ally of both Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government seat of power, Erbil, had been implacably opposed to the ballot, especially the decision to include Kirkuk and other disputed areas – a move that officials described as “dangerous unilateralism”, which attempted to redraw the country’s boundaries.
Washington had downplayed Iraqi troop movements since Kurdish leaders first sounded the alarm early on Thursday. By Friday, however, officials said they were “monitoring developments”. It is thought that the US believes a direct acknowledgment of the Iraqi troop buildup would compel it to intervene, something its military leaders are deeply reluctant to do.
Kurdish security officers say they are aware of specific plans to seize districts inside Kirkuk, and that the operation is being directed from near the town of Hawija, where the last remnants of Isis in Iraq have all but been defeated by the national military and Shia forces.
Kurdish officials believe Iranian officers, together with the senior leaders of the PMF, are directing movements. Late on Friday Iraqi leaders delivered an ultimatum that the Kurds surrender a military airport near Kirkuk. The fate of two oil fields to the west of the city have also been tabled.
Inside Kirkuk, Najman Saledin, a merchant from the city’s north, said Peshmerga forces had taken up defensive positions throughout the day. “They have told us that they will stay here as long as it takes, and will never run from us, or leave us behind. The leaders here said that up to 10,000 Peshmerga have arrived.”
The Kurdish prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, pleaded for international help to broker an end to the crisis. Iraq’s vice president, Iyad Allawi, meanwhile, warned that any flashpoint could quickly spill into a civil war.
“Let’s hope he is wrong,” said Saledin. “More blood would ruin Iraq.”