As the Islamic State’s (ISIS) influence in the Middle East, and in the international system as a whole seems to be declining, internal conflict between Kurdish groups and the Iraqi government are resuming their historical tension, with hostilities especially high in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kirkuk. On September 25, the Kurdistan region held a referendum addressing their independence from Iraq. Kirkuk, an oil rich province claimed by both the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, is considered to be outside of Kurdistan, but were included in this vote. The referendum was overwhelmingly supported, with 92% of voters backing the succession of Kurdistan from Iraq. The Iraqi government, however, refuses to acknowledge the referendum vote as legitimate and has since deployed troops into Kirkuk in response to the vote.
Photos and videos show Iraqi military vehicles driving through the streets of Kirkuk, and Iraqi armies invading the Kirkuk governor’s office. Kurdish flags were also pulled down. The government in Baghdad insists that the troops were deployed to maintain peace. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that the aim of the military action was to “protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions.” Mr. Abadi also insists that he does not want the deployment to escalate into armed conflict.
As the Iraqi forces entered Kirkuk, Peshmerga Kurdish forces withdrew, in what CNN reports as “relatively peaceful by Iraqi standards.” It is unclear, however, whether the situation in Kirkuk was truly peaceful. BBC news reported gunfire from a military checkpoint in Kirkuk and President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party claims that several fighters have been killed and injured in the conflict.
The reason for the Kurdish withdrawal from Kirkuk is unclear, and has triggered internal tension between two main Kurdish factions- the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP has recently accused the PUK of having “a plot against the Kurdish people.” The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, on the other hand, denies any withdrawal and claims that many PUK soldiers have been killed or injured while “not even one KDP Peshmerga has been martyred.”
100,000 citizens of Kirkuk have left their homes and belongings to flee to safe havens in Kurdistan in fear of aggression from entering Iraqi forces, according to a news release from the Kurdish Security Council. Endless lines of cars filled the streets leading out of Kirkuk, as citizens attempted to get out of the city as quickly as possible. One these safe havens includes the Kurdish capital of Erbil. The citizens of Erbil have been gracious in lending their homes to fellow Kurds fleeing Kirkuk. Abu Nebez, a resident of Erbil, says “I have welcomed in my house seven families consisting of 37 people, 14 of whom we do not know.”
The U.S. responded with concerns over the events in the region, and have emphasized that they want to give weapons to Iraq to fight ISIS, and not to fight itself. Peshmerga forces have destroyed ten U.S. Humvees and two tanks.
As of October 15, Kurdish leaders have said they want to reach a peaceful agreement. An aid of Mr. Massoud Barzani said that Kurdish forces “reject the military option”, but are “ready to defend.” Though Kirkuk is relatively calm as of right now, tensions are still present and the progression of this conflict is being dealt with on a day-to-day basis by both Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government.
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