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Iraq ends Kurdish dreams of independence

Iraqi federal security forces advance into central Kirkuk city, northern Iraq.
Iraqi federal security forces advance into central Kirkuk city, northern Iraq. MURTAJA LATEEF

Elite Iraqi security forces have captured the Kurdish government headquarters buildings in the centre of Kirkuk and the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Iraqi flag to be raised over Kirkuk and other disputed territories.

An Iraqi Oil Ministry official said that it would be "a very short time” before the Iraqi military seized all the oilfields in Kirkuk province.

The century-old movement for Kurdish independence has suffered a calamitous defeat as Iraqi military forces retake the Kirkuk oil province, facing little resistance so far from the Peshmerga fighters. Kurdish officials accuse part of the forces belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish parties, of "treason” in not resisting the Iraqi assault.

Iraqi Kurdish dreams of achieving real independence depended on controlling the oil wealth of Kirkuk that is now lost to them, probably forever. Such autonomy as they did have will be curtailed, with Turkey announcing that it will hand over control of the border gate between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to the central government in Baghdad.

The Iraqi government operation began early on Monday morning as troops swiftly seized two major oilfields and the headquarters of the North Oil Company. A convoy of armoured vehicles from Baghdad's highly-trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force, which led the attack in the battle for Mosul, drove unopposed to the quarter of Kirkuk occupied by the governor's office and other administration buildings.

Iraqi oil officials in Baghdad say that the Kurdish authorities of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had tried to close down oil production by evacuating oil workers but that output would soon be resumed. The Kurds seized Kirkuk city in 2003 at the time of the US invasion and expanded their area of control in 2014 when the Iraqi army in northern was defeated by Isis.

The streets in Kirkuk city were deserted in the morning as people stayed in their houses or fled to KRG territory further north. So far there has been little shooting as the Peshmerga abandoned their positions in what appears to have been a prearranged withdrawal. The city has a population of one million made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, the latter two communities hostile to Kurdish rule. A resident of Kirkuk said today that ethnic Turkmen were firing guns into the air in celebration of the takeover by government forces.

Mr Abadi told his security forces in a statement read on state television "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”. He called on the Peshmerga to serve under federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces. Coming after the recapture of Mosul from Isis in July after a nine-month siege, Mr Abadi will be politically strengthened by his victory over the Kurds whose commanders had promised to defend Kirkuk to the end.

The speed and success of the Iraqi military advance against negligible resistance so far is a blow to President Masoud Barzani who ignited the present crisis. He did so by holding a referendum on Kurdish independence on 25 September that was greeted with enthusiasm by Iraqi Kurds. But it was adamantly opposed by the Iraqi central government, Iran, Turkey as well as traditional Kurdish allies such as the US and Europeans, leaving Mr Barzani isolated in the face of superior forces.

The referendum is seen, even by many of those who originally supported it, as a disastrous miscalculation by Mr Barzani. Kamran Kardaghi, a Kurdish commentator and former chief of staff to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who died last week says that "the Kurdish leadership never expected that there would be such consequences to the referendum.” Omar Sheikhmous, a veteran Kurdish leader, warned before the referendum that it might turn out to be one of the classic misjudgements in Iraqi history, comparing it to Saddam Hussein's decision to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. He feared the referendum, guaranteed to alienate all the Kurds'allies, would turn out to a political error with similar calamitous consequences.

- Patrick Cockburn

Topics:  baghdad iraqi security forces islamic state kirkuk kurdish independence kurdistan kurds peshmerga turkey



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