On Sunday night, U.S.-armed and -trained Iraqi government forces clashed with U.S.-armed and -trained Kurdish forces in the disputed city of Kirkuk. By Monday, Iraqi forces had reclaimed the city, a military base, the airport, and major oil fields nearby while thousands of Kirkuk residents fled north.
U.S. Defense Department officials quickly tried to downplay the severity of the overnight clashes, saying they were simply caused by a “misunderstanding” between the two sides. One military officer told Foreign Policy that reports of fighting have been overblown by “extreme” elements on both sides, and aside from the weekend firefight, “things have been relatively coordinated.” (The Pentagon later tried to characterize the movement as a fight against the Islamic State.)
While the fighting stopped, the war of words continued. The Iraqi government in a statement Monday blamed some Kurds for carrying out a “concerted misinformation campaign” to “cover up their sinister actions” to disrupt Iraqi security forces sent in to take possession of the installations in Kirkuk.
Meanwhile, a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) tweeted Monday that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “will pay a heavy price” for the move.
Top U.S. administration officials think the Islamic State and Iran will be the biggest beneficiaries if the showdown continues. “All sides need to stand down and refrain from any further provocative or escalatory actions. The biggest winners from further tensions would be ISIS and [Iran’s] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — an outcome we should all want to avoid,” a National Security Council spokesperson told FP, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Iran has used the confrontation to deepen its involvement in Iraqi politics. Iranian-backed militias joined the troops Baghdad sent to Kirkuk, and reports emerged that the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, was entering Kirkuk to hold talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials.
Some experts expect that the Iranian support for Baghdad in the fight over Kirkuk will rebound to Tehran’s benefit. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, forecast greater Iranian influence within the Iraqi government and greater popular support for Iran-backed candidates for Iraq’s elections, slated for next spring.
The clashes and the heated rhetoric underscore the depth of ill will between Baghdad and Erbil, the seat of the KRG, since Iraqi Kurdistan carried out an independence referendum on Sept. 25 despite a chorus of protests from Baghdad, Washington, and European allies.
The United States, which took a hands-off approach to the brewing crisis in the wake of the referendum, seems inclined to keep aloof from what many see as an internal Iraqi political fight.
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