Why the battle over the Iraqi city of Kirkuk matters

Haider Al-Abadi

Iraq has taken control of key areas of the dispute city of Kirkuk, seizing the worldwide airport, a key oil field and a military base in what is an oil-rich area bordering the Kurdistan Region.

On Monday, Iraqi forces, backed by Shia militias, said they had taken control of the city's global airport, an oil field, the strategic K1 military base and the Taza Khormatu district in the south-east of the city, leading to reports of hundreds of armed Kurdish residents to take up positions inside the city in anticipation of an attack.

Prime Minister Haidar Abadi ordered security forces "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga".

Tensions are escalating between Baghdad and the region of Kurdistan after the Kurds held the September controversial referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region and the disputed areas.

He called on "all citizens to cooperate with the armed forces" who had been tasked with "protecting civilians in the first degree and imposing security and order and protecting the facilities and institutions of the state".

Iraqi Army Captain Hamed al-Obeidi told Anadolu Agency that "hundreds" of Kurdish families had recently fled Kirkuk following the arrival of Iraqi government forces to the city's southern entrance.

The Defense Department remains focused on the fight against ISIS, a terrorist organization that threatens the states in the region and the worldwide community, Manning said.

Washington has trained and equipped the advancing Iraqi troops and the peshmerga Kurdish forces on the other side. The U.S. has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both sides in their shared struggle and called the frictions a distraction against the most important fight.

There were clashes between Kurdish and Shi'ite Turkmen groups in another city, Tuz Khormatu, about 75 km (47 miles) south of Kirkuk, but no casualties were reported.

Kurdish claims are based off the 1957 Iraqi census, the last held in the province, which showed Kurds to be a majority in Kirkuk province, although the Turkmen and Arabs could claim a majority in Kirkuk city proper.

The military action in Kirkuk helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

It remains unclear how far Iraq's army and its militia partners intend to advance, but the importance of Kirkuk and the complexity of the armed alliances increase the "potential for political and military miscalculations", said Glen Ransom, Iraq analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. Abadi's office said the militias would remain on the outskirts of Kirkuk rather than enter the city.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbours Iran and Turkey. Early Monday Iraqi forces began moving to evict Kurds from a military base and oil fields. 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".

The peshmerga are, in turn, divided between two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Both parties control their own Peshmerga units. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.

The status of Kirkuk and fate of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a US-led invasion toppled Saddam. The fighting is believed to have been between Kurdish forces and Shia militias, which have also been instrumental in the war on ISIS.

During the years of USA occupation that ensued, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war amid an insurgency by Sunni Muslim Arabs.

Baghdad and the Kurds have long-running disputes over oil exports, extraction and sharing oil revenues.

"The referendum came at a time where the country is fighting against terrorism that has come in the form of ISIL".

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