The Iraqi military and Iran-backed Shia militias have moved into Kirkuk province, which the Kurds claim is part of the autonomous Kurdish north. Apparently, rather than fight a war they know they would probably lose, Kurdish troops and over 100,000 Kurdish civilians fled. There is some fighting near the border between Kurdish northern Iraq and the rest of Iraq. This involves Kurdish forces and advancing Iran-backed Shia militia. These militias have been unpredictable since Iran was allowed to form them in 2014.
Actually there is some confusion over who ordered what in Kurd controlled parts of Kirkuk province. Kurdish officials (from the Barzani clan) accused pro-Talibani Kurdish military commanders in Kirkuk of ordering a withdrawal without permission. Many Barzani supporters believe the Talibanis made a secret deal with Iran to allow the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militia take over northern Kirkuk province, Kirkuk city and the nearby oilfields. Some Iraqi Kurds accuse the Americans of being in on this as well. It may be a while before it is clear who made deals with who beforehand. Meanwhile it is clear that the Iraqi government had again, as had happened several times in the past, sold out the Kurds to placate Turkey, Iran and others. This is nothing new and is actually part of an ancient conflict. Very ancient rivalries between Kurds, Iranians and Arabs that predate the arrival of the Turks, Europeans and Americans. In this part of the world ancient history tends to be frequently recycled as today’s news.
For centuries the Kurds, a large Caucasian tribe living in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northeast Syria and northwest Iran, sought unity and their own state. In the last century that aspiration seemed close to reality several times. The Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) carved up post-Ottoman Turkey and the victorious allies (including the United States) promised that an autonomous (and potentially independent) Kurdistan would be organized in eastern Turkey. Subsequent events (especially the Greco-Turk War of 1921 and 1922) halted the implementation of the Treaty of Sevres. The Treaty of Lausanne (July 1923) which resulted in the forced emigration of Greeks from Asia Minor and of Turks from most of the Aegean islands, made no provision for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. By the 1930s the allies had helped create independent (from centuries of Turkish rule) Syria and Iraq. Both contained Kurdish minorities. In Iraq Kurds in the north were divided, as Kurds had been for thousands of years, by clan rivalries. In the aftermath of the 1991 war to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait American and British special operations troops in northern Iraq helped train and organize the Kurds who, to the surprise of many, were able to drive out the Iraqi government forces and keep them out ever since.
In effect, since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds up there have been largely autonomous. But they were not united. The main division was between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which is led by the Talibani clan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is dominated by the Barzani clan. The Turks, Iraqis and Iranians frequently exploit the PUK-KDP rivalry. That seems to be a factor in the current situation because although the Kurds are the most effective Iraqi fighters there appear to be internal disagreements. This may have something to do with Iran and the recent referendum on independence. Kurdish popular sentiment strongly favors an independent Kurdistan and the current Kurdish leadership openly promises a vote on independence “in a few years.” Meanwhile the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs can agree on one thing; Iran is out to gain more control over whoever is running Iraq and using pro-Iran Iraqi Shia to help them.
Once more Iran is taking advantage of Kurdish factionalism. This has been a major reason why the Kurds were never able to create their own country. Despite efforts to unite, the Kurds continue to squabble. This is happening despite the two parties agreeing to unify in 2006. At first that appeared to work. But with more foreign aid coming in the PUK accused the KDP (which holds most top leadership positions) of taking more than their share. To make this worse Iran began offering direct aid to PUK and, according to the KDP and many in the PUK, trying to divide the Iraqi Kurds.
Despite that since the early 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan has effectively been autonomous and far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country. This encouraged Kurds because they saw themselves better able to run their own state than Arabs or Iranians. Then came the 2003 U.S.-British invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a democracy. That process was delayed for several years by a Sunni Arab Islamic terror campaign against the Shia Arab majority. By 2007 that was defeated, in part because the Kurds had some of the most capable military forces of any of the factions in Iraq, and that included the government. In 2006, when the factions agreed to “unite” the PUK had some 40,000 militiamen, and the KDP nearly 60,000. In addition, between them the two groups have about 50,000 reservists as well. Most of the militiamen were (and still are) armed and trained as motorized light infantry, and organized into brigades of 5,000-8,000. Several "armored" brigades were formed, equipped with Russian tanks, APCs, and artillery. There is also a small, but effective artillery force. In addition to these forces, there were an estimated 15,000-20,000 Kurds in the Iraqi Army or National Police, and a further 10,000 or so working for private security organizations.
Since 2006 the unified Kurdish military has remained at about 100,000 with a larger but with a larger and better equipped reserve. But because of all that autonomy talk the Shia Arab controlled Iraqi government has quietly and unofficially blocked delivery many arms bought for use by the Kurds. The U.S. has always urged upgrading the military equipment of the Kurdish forces but has also supported the Iraqi government. That means it is up to that government to distribute weapons it buys and since Mosul fell in mid-2014 the Kurds have been getting louder about their weapons shortages. While the U.S. still refuses to ship weapons directly to the Kurds some other NATO countries have done so. But most of the weapons the Kurds need are still being held by the Iraqi government.
There are other sources of friction between Kurds and Arab Iraqis. The big one about Kurdish control of Kirkuk province. There was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if it should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south to take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. But that was not all.
Saddam Hussein was particularly hated by the Kurds for his brutal efforts to quash Kurdish unrest. These included killing over 8,000 Barzani men and boys and using chemical weapons several times. During the 1988 “Anfal” campaign the Iraqi Kurd town of Halabja suffered 5,000 dead and 10,000 wounded when it was attacked with chemical munitions (sarin nerve gas and mustard gas.) Evidence of this attack got out and was verified. The Kurds see the various Sunni Islamic terror groups that arose in Iraq after 2003 as just another example of Arab depravity and treachery.
After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Because so many of Saddam era Arab migrants to Kirkuk left since 2004 the province and city of Kirkuk are believed to be majority Kurd again. The largest non-Kurd group is Turkish (Turkmen, Turks from Turkmenistan in Central Asia not Turkey) and the Turkmen are not united. They are divided by politics (although most favor alliance with the Kurds), religion (Sunni, Shia and Catholic). The inability of the Turkmen to unite is exploited by the Shia Arab government in Baghdad as well as Iran. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk province would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government.
The Kirkuk dispute took an unexpected turn when ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seized Mosul in June 2014 and advanced into Kirkuk province with the intention of seizing Kirkuk city. The Kurds were able to halt the ISIL advance. By August 2014 American air support for the Kurds made it impossible for ISIL to resume its advance towards Kirkuk and a “front line” was established about 40 kilometers southwest of the city. But ever since then Kirkuk (population 400,000) had to be defended against the ISIL threat and that tied down a lot of Kurdish troops.
Meanwhile the tensions between the Kurds and the Arab majority were put aside (temporarily). Over the next three years the Kurds demonstrated that they were the most competent and reliable military force in Iraq. By late 2016 the Kurds had driven ISIL back to the outskirts of Mosul. They were assisted by their main backer (the United States) along with a coalition of NATO and Arab countries who provided air support. The Kurds were better prepared for war and the oil money was very important to preserving their autonomy. Less corrupt than the Arabs, the Kurds were the one group in Iraq the West could depend on. Moreover the Kurds don't trust the Arabs. To make matters worse for the Iraqi government, Turkey backs, or at least tolerates, the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks don’t trust the Arabs either. Considering the current situation in Iraq, most Iraqis don’t trust Iraq either. Despite all that there was enough unity to defeat ISIL and keep the Iranians from getting too ambitious. Yet the fundamental problems with the Kurds and other ethnic and religious groups remain, as do the efforts by Iran to gain control over Iran. In addition here is the endemic corruption and unstable neighbors.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly the Iraqi Kurds announced in mid-2017 that an independence referendum would take place in September. Turkey openly criticized the Kurdish referendum about establishing a separate Kurdish state. Turkey plays an important part in this because the Kurds continue to pump and ship (via a Turkish pipeline) up to half a million barrels of oil a day. The Shia Arab dominated national government wants that to stop but did not believe it had the military superiority needed to force the Kurds out. The main obstacle to the Kurds moving forward with the independence effort is internal divisions. Despite the apparent unity the Iraqi Kurds also suffered from corruption and angry Kurds who believed that their government dominated by the Barzani family was turning into another dictatorship. Since the 1990s, the Barzanis have emerged as the most powerful clan and they are behaving more like the Arabs (corruption, suppression of dissent, and rigged elections). Popular anger over this was increasing. Despite that, Kurds living outside the autonomous area continue to move back to the Kurdish region. Even the Iraqi Army, which was rebuilt after 2003, with a core of experienced, loyal, and reliable Kurdish troops lost many of its Kurds who preferred to “go home” to the autonomous north. For the Kurdish soldiers leaving was mainly a matter of not wanting to get caught up in the war between Shia and Sunni Arabs.
In 2014 the Kurds got dragged into another Shia-Sunni Arab conflict as ISIL (created by Iraqi Sunni Arabs in 2013) grabbed western Iraq and Mosul. The Kurds played a key role in driving ISIL out of Mosul and northern Iraq. But in doing that the Kurdish armed forces (the Peshmerga) suffered 12,000 casualties since 2014. Most (82 percent) of these casualties were wounds, although nearly 20 percent of those wounded were permanently disabled and 18 percent of all casualties were dead or missing. The fact that these Kurds were the most effective Iraqi troops in Iraq is not lost on anyone but to many Iraqi Arabs this sacrifice did not justify an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq or control over Kirkuk.
Then there is the Iranian factor. The Iranians always had better relations with the Talibani clan than with the dominant (since the 1990s, and especially after 2007) Barzani clan. There have been incidents in Kurdish Iraq over the last few years as Iranian efforts to aid the Talibani became more visible, and further deepened the divisions between the Barzani and Taliban factions. This influence was used to convince the Kurds that using their superior fighters to defend Kirkuk province was not a good idea, especially since the Barzanis had allowed the referendum to take place and now all the neighbors were threatening to blockade northern Iraq and starve out the Kurds. The Americans refused to take sides and apparently told the Kurds that this was a mess the Kurds had created and it was up to Kurds to fix it without making the situation worse.
At the same time there is wane foreign power that is particularly active inside Iraq and that was Iran. In addition to wanting to put pro-Iran politicians in control of the government Iran also wanted to turn Syria into a “protectorate” where Iran will establish military bases and organize a Shia militia similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. No one besides Iran is particularly fond of this plan, even current Iranian allies Turkey and Russia. The Iraq government, despite, being controlled by Iraqi Shia Arabs, does not want to submit to any form of Iranian control and Israel has made it clear it will fight rather than allow Iran to set up shop in Syria. Therefore the current offensive in Kirkuk province is making everyone, except the Iranians, uneasy.
October 18, 2017: In the northwest (outside Mosul) Kurdish forces guarding the Mosul dam opened fire on Iran-backed Shia militia that tried to take control of the area. At least nine people died before the shooting stopped and the Shia militia dug in opposite the Kurdish forces. Elsewhere in Nineveh Province Kurdish forces withdrew, as they had earleier agreed, from the border town of Rabia and the major border crossing with Syria.
October 17, 2017: Najmaldin Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk Province fled Kirkuk City and the province. Karim had been won provincial elections in 2011 and 2014 but that was not the issue here. Fear of the advancing Shia militias was a problem because these militias were largely controlled by Iran. To the west, in Nineveh Province Kurdish forces withdrew from Sinjar and other areas as part of an existing agreement.
October 16, 2017: In the north, near the Turkish border, two Turkish troops were killed and two wounded by a roadside bomb. The Turks had crossed the border in search of PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) who were believed to be hiding in Iraq. The Iraqi government and local Kurds tolerate these Turkish incursions and airstrikes as long as they concentrate on PKK personnel hiding out in remote areas near the border. In response to the roadside bomb casualties the Turks launched several airstrikes on PKK camps, killing at least eight people.
October 15, 2017: In the north Iraqi troops and Iran-backed Shia militias advanced further into Kirkuk province and headed for Kurdish controlled oil fields and Kirkuk city. Kurdish forces did not resist and pulled back to areas that Iraq recognized as under Kurdish control.
October 14, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) Iraqi aircraft dropped leaflets on the two border towns still controlled by ISIL telling everyone that if ISIL did not surrender the two towns would be attacked and destroyed. Many of the people in the towns are not pro-ISIL and some of the ISIL fighters belong to Anbar tribes. The Iraqis are hoping for a surrender or at least an uprising in the towns against ISIL, otherwise the “attack” will proceed and consist mostly of artillery and airstrikes. Many civilians will be killed.
October 5, 2017: ISIL resistance in Hawijah, which is 45 kilometers west of Kirkuk city has collapsed and the Iraqi government declared the city free of ISIL. Since August many of the ISIL members (over a thousand of them) in the area had surrendered to the Kurds, who are still questioning and processing all these prisoners, many of whom surrendered in the last week. Over 1,300 ISIL fighters were killed during the two week battle for the city. One thing the Kurds soon realized was that the ISIL personnel realized that if they were captured alive by the Iran-backed Shia militia, that were sent to assist Iraqi forces in retaking Hawijah, they could expect torture and death because ISIL has carried out most of its terror attacks against Iraqi Shia and even a few inside Iran itself.
ISIL had occupied Hawijah since mid-2014 but it was cut off from ISIL controlled territory in July 2017 when Mosul fell. Hawijah has always been a stronghold of Islamic terrorism because it is a Sunni majority city of 100,000 in a region that is largely Kurdish and Shia Arab. In late May as it became clear that Mosul would fall ISIL announced that it had established secret headquarters in the north at Hawijah. Because it was in the center of Kirkuk province Hawijah has been the main base for ISIL activity against the Iraqi Kurds, who control Kirkuk city and everything north of that. There has been fighting between ISIL factions in Hawijah during early 2017 because of a dispute over how the remaining ISIL members in Iraq and outside of Mosul would be organized once Mosul fell. By May there were two factions, one controlling Hawijah and ISIL forces in other northern provinces except for Nineveh, which is on the Syrian border and where Mosul is. Once Mosul was cleared of organized ISIL resistance in July the security forces moved to take Hawijah. There was panic among the thousands of ISIL supporters (most of them families of ISIL fighters) in Hawijah. ISIL leaders and fighters are not supposed to flee with the families and ISIL has released videos of ISIL leaders being executed for trying to leave Hawijah with the civilians. The battle for Hawijah brought substantial Iraqi government forces and Iran-backed Shia militias into an area that has long been claimed by the Kurds and these forces were used to advance on Kirkuk city.
October 3, 2017: Jalal Talabani, long-time leader of the PUK party and the Talibani clan, died at 83. He was also president of Iraq from 2005 and 2014 (when he resigned because of health problems). With Jalal Talabani out of the picture after 2014 relations between the Talibani and Barzai clans got worse.
September 30, 2017: Turkey threatened Israel for its alleged support of Kurdish independence. This comes after the September 25th referendum in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq where 92 percent of the voters approved of efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This vote was largely to get some publicity for the Kurds and it did. The outcome was no surprise and neither was the outrage from the nations (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) where the regions’ 40 million Kurds live. These nations will go to war to prevent a Kurdish state.
September 27, 2017: In the north Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue clearing ISIL forces out of Hawijah, the last city ISIL controls in Iraq. The battle for Hawijah began on the 21st and so far over 500 ISIL fighters have been killed and a surprising number have surrendered, usually to Kurds.
September 25, 2017: In Iraq the autonomous Kurds who control much of northern Iraq went ahead and held the referendum on Kurdish independence. Over 90 percent of Kurds backed independence. Russian ally Turkey threatened to shut down the oil pipeline the Iraqi Kurds use to export oil in their territory. In addition Turkey would close the roads between Turkey and Iraq. Russia has invested $4 billion in Iraqi Kurdish territory and would lose most of that if the Iraqi Kurds find themselves cut off by Turkey and at war with the rest of Iraq.
Turkey has extended for another year the presence of small Turkish bases and military forces in northern Iraq and northwestern Syria. These are there to help deal with Islamic terrorism and Kurdish separatists (PKK in Iraq, YPG in Syria). In both cases these Turkish bases have been mainly used to fight ISIL over the last year.