Following the Kurdish independence referendum last month it was expected that a subsequent clash between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments would likely take place in or around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government does not consider the oil-rich city to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government has a different take entirely on the matter and Kurdish voters in Kirkuk were allowed to take part in the referendum.
On Monday, the confrontation materialized when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and, according to Iraqi government statements, seized key objectives from Kurdish forces including K-1 Air Base, and the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field. Reports of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga troops conflicted with official Iraqi claims about the Peshmerga withdrawing from Kirkuk without fighting.
The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS was seizing control of vast stretches of Iraqi territory. With Iraqi forces back in Kirkuk it would appear that Kurdish dreams of an independent state in northern Iraq are all but dead. Not that there was ever going to be a realistic chance for a Kurdish nation-state to be formed. Iraq was having none of that. Fearful that the referendum by the Kurds would be the first step towards an eventual breakup of Iraq, Baghdad has moved decisively to prevent that from happening.
The United States, close allies with the Kurds, as well as Iraq, played no role in the Kirkuk operation. There is still lingering anger over Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, refusing the US offer to preside over negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the referendum. Washington continues to sit quietly and do nothing, allowing Barzani’s political situation to deteriorate. There is some desire within the Beltway to hasten his political demise, and officially end the Barzani era in Kurdistan. From the State Department to the Pentagon and Langley, more influential voices are coming around to the notion that Kurdistan’s future will be better without Barzani in control.