Earlier this week, the Iraqi army stated it has taken full control of Kirkuk, including the city’s airport and oil field, following a major advance on Kurdish-held territories. According to Al Jazeera, Iraqi security forces had captured the government building in the centre of Kirkuk city with no opposition from Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
This action was part of a major operation to retake the oil-rich province, during an escalating dispute that occurred when Baghdad declared a referendum on Kurdish secession illegal. As the Iraqi army advanced, thousands of people, including civilians and Peshmerga fighters, fled the disputed the city, which is said to be home to about a million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.
“It seems to be a complete withdrawal from the Peshmerga inside and around the city,” Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratfordreported from the outskirts of Kirkuk.
According to Stratford it took only about 15 hours for Iraqi troops to capture the city.
“Standing by the side of the road, there were Peshmerga fighters demanding that their colleagues went back to Kirkuk and continued to try and defend it. But there were also a lot of very frightened people desperate to get out as quickly as possible.”
While no response was immediately met with the capture, the Kurdish Peshmerga General Command (PGC) later issued a warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, stating the Iraqi government will pay a “heavy price for this unfairness” referring to its military campaign in Kirkuk, which it described as “a declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan”.
“We call upon all the real Peshmerga of the country and the resilient and enemy-defeating people to do all they can to resist and defeat the attackers,” the statement said.
While the accusations have been denied by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the PGC has accused some of the leaders of PUK of “treason”, alleging that forces under the party’s control had withdrawn from areas they held.
“Unfortunately, some officials from the … PUK helped this plot against the Kurdistan nation and committed a great and historic treason against Kurdistan and the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for Kurdistan under the PUK flag,” the statement said.
The time that it took for Iraqi militant forces capture and seize the city has left Kurdish forces with many questions.
Al-Abadi met the threat with a call to the Peshmerga to collaborate in maintaining the peace in Kirkuk.
“We call upon the Peshmerga forces to perform their duty under the federal leadership as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” he said in a statement on Facebook, urging “all employees in Kirkuk to continue their work normally and not to disrupt the interests of citizens”.
According to reporters, Al-Abadi said he was fulfilling his constitutional duty “to serve the citizens and protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition due to the insistence on holding the referendum organized by those in power in the Kurdistan region in a unilateral step”.
Tensions between the two sides have been rampant since Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for secession in last month’s referendum. The non-binding poll was held in areas under control of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and in various disputed territories, including Kirkuk.
A lack of agreement on who should control Kirkuk, between the two parties, has created a division since the Kurdish Peshmerga forces first took control of oil-rich Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled from attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group in 2014.