Long-simmering tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan broke out into open warfare Monday as Iraqi troops and Shiite paramilitaries recaptured the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk from Kurdish control.
Iraqi military and militia forces began the assault on the city, which lies 55 miles south of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Irbil, early Monday with a barrage of mortars and long-range artillery fire along the city’s southern borders.
Iraqi forces and paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilization Forces began amassing along Kirkuk’s city limits Friday after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for the operation to retake Kirkuk. Baghdad issued the order to recapture the city weeks after a referendum vote that could set the stage for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
“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,” Mr. al-Abadi said in a statement on the Kirkuk operation. “We are only performing our duty in keeping the city safe for Iraq’s various factions. We urge all citizens to cooperate with our heroic armed forces.”
The developments in Iraq came amid reports that U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces were making fresh advances against the Islamic State’s former stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, a few hundred miles west of Kirkuk.
A spokesman for the Kurdish forces, who have been instrumental in Washington’s ground war against the terrorist group over the past two years, predicted that Raqqa would be under their control “within a few days.”
Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said fierce street battles were underway near the main hospital in Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the terrorist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
SDF fighters launched an operation to retake the last Islamic State-held pocket of the city after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered over the weekend. The extremists still hold about 10 percent of Raqqa, including the hospital and the main stadium, which is believed to be used by the militants as a jail and an arms depot.
But an infamous public square where Islamic State operatives once held executions and beheadings was captured Monday by Kurdish-led forces. Mr. Bali said clashes at Al-Naim, or “Paradise” Square, had raged since Sunday.
Al-Naim had been synonymous with the Islamic State’s reign of terror in Syria. After declaring its self-styled caliphate, the group was known to leave bodies and severed heads mounted on posts around the central city square.
Meanwhile, the State Department expressed concern about the military action in Kirkuk, saying it is “monitoring the situation closely and call on all parties to coordinate military activities and restore calm.”
“We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution, in all disputed areas,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We are working with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions, avoid further clashes, and encourage dialogue.”
Ms. Nauert said “there is still much work to be done to defeat ISIS in Iraq” and the conflicts between Iraqis and Kurds “distract from this vital mission.”
Nonetheless, the role played by Iranian militias in the Kirkuk operation is a harbinger of the Islamic republic’s growing influence in Iraq under the al-Abadi regime, one that Tehran could leverage against U.S. and coalition forces in the country.
Kurdish peshmerga forces are falling back from areas around the city’s outskirts into defensive positions surrounding the city’s commercial airport while thousands of Iraqi Kurds attempt to flee the fighting, The Associated Press reported.
Local media outlets reported instances of Iraqi troops burning down homes in recaptured areas in neighborhoods of Toz Khormato and Daquq while removing Kurdish flags or other official insignia of the Kurdish Regional Government from homes and buildings in and around the city.
Iraq’s interior ministry said in a brief statement that federal forces had taken control of a power plant, a police station and industrial areas near Kirkuk as part of Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk.
Officials in Baghdad declined to provide further details on the fighting, while Irbil claims to have destroyed five U.S. armored Humvees given to Iraqi forces by coalition commanders to battle the Islamic State.
U.S. diplomats and American commanders in Iraq are urging restraint by the Iraqi military and militias, while one U.S. lawmaker is threatening to pull military and foreign aid support for Baghdad if it does not refrain from further attacks on Kurdish forces.
“I urge Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi to fulfill his pledge to prevent any external or internal attacks against the Kurds and prove Baghdad is not the puppet of Tehran,” said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican. “Otherwise, the U.S. will have no other choice but to pull funding, as it cannot in good conscience send money to an Iranian patsy working to subvert American interests,” Mr. Franks, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan
Kirkuk has been a flashpoint in ongoing tensions between Irbil and Baghdad since Kurdish Peshmerga liberated the city from Islamic State control last year. KRG President Masoud Barzani said the city would remain under peshmerga protection indefinitely. That pronouncement effectively put one of Iraq’s top oil-producing territories under Irbil’s control.
Washington stood against Iraqi Kurdistan’s bid for independence, beginning with its opposition to the referendum vote in September. But on Monday, Mr. Franks urged the White House to reconsider its position, saying support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan “is clearly in our national interest.”
U.S. and coalition commanders attempted to downplay the increasing tensions between Baghdad and Irbil, former allies under the U.S.-led coalition to defeat Islamic State, saying military action would be unlikely.
“I’ve actually got absolutely zero proof that anybody at the senior level of the Iraqi Security Force apparatus has sent any threatening messages to the government in Irbil or their partners in this fight against ISIS,” Maj. Gen. Robert White told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.
On Monday, the Pentagon doubled down on its calls for Baghdad and Irbil to resolve their differences peacefully “despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s decision to pursue a unilateral referendum,” Army Col. Rob Manning, a Defense Department spokesman, told reporters.
“We strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions. We oppose violence from any party and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability,” Col. Manning said during a Pentagon briefing. “We call on all actors in the region to focus on this common threat and avoid stoking tensions among the Iraqi people.”
The Kirkuk operation is the strongest example of Tehran’s growing influence through the Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces, said Jennifer Cafarella, the senior intelligence planner at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“The U.S. has been sidelined in this crisis, [and] that is a dangerous precedent” being set by both Baghdad and Iran as Washington and regional powers continue to square off over the future of Iraq after Islamic State, she told The Washington Times.
Aside from the Kirkuk operation, PMF units most recently played a critical role in backing Iraqi forces in clearing Islamic State from Tal Afar and Hawija. The Shiite militias federalized into the Iraqi Security Forces by Mr. al-Abadi last year also fought Islamic State in Fallujah and Anbar province, where they also were accused of sectarian killings and human rights abuses against Sunni civilians.
Baghdad’s decision to lean heavily upon the PMF units and their Iranian patrons to suppress Kurdish control in the north could backfire and put the al-Abadi regime in a position where it is seen as Tehran’s puppet in the country.
“Mr. al-Abadi does get to claim this as a win,” Ms. Cafarella said, but she noted the armed support from Iran undermines the legitimacy of that victory in Kirkuk. “This was not a unilateral operation by Iran” in Kirkuk, but the thinly veiled presence of military advisers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — who were tagged as a terrorist group by the Trump White House last week — only shows Tehran’s reach into Iraq.
An emboldened Iran also could leverage its influence in Iraq against U.S. forces stationed there, said Ms. Cafarella, adding that Tehran may look to Iraq to lash out against Washington’s harsh new policies toward the country.
“Iranian proxy forces will likely attack U.S. forces in the coming weeks” in Iraq, in retaliation for the Trump administration’s punitive policies against Tehran in recent weeks.
Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Trump administration may be poised to use the Kurdish peshmerga forces as a proxy to battle Iran-backed militias.
“The U.S. can roll back Iran by increasing its military and diplomatic support for the Kurds,” Mr. Landis wrote in an analysis published this weekend by the widely read Syria Comment blog.
“The Kurds can be used to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The U.S. will line up with the Kurds in their effort to acquire territory and fossil fuel resources over which they are competing with Arab neighbors in places such as the Euphrates valley,” he said.
⦁ Guy Taylor contributed to this report.