The establishment of an independent Kurdistan was starting to take shape after last month’s non-binding referendum, in which more than 92% of Kurds voted to break from Iraq, says Nabih Bulos in the LA Times. But this week, the dream “all but died” when the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, was forced out of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and several other towns by the Iraqi army, aided by a coalition of Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Masoud Barzani, de facto Kurdish president for the past two years, insisted that the defeat did not mean the end for independence. But the Iraqi forces’ rapid advance means the Kurdish Regional Government has lost many “areas it could have used as bargaining chips” with Baghdad, says Erika Solomon in the Financial Times.
The Kirkuk province, source of 6% of the world’s oil (according to CNN), lies at “the heart of a long-running dispute between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and its central government”, says Philip Issa in The Washington Post. After Iraqi soldiers fled from Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, Kurdish forces moved in to secure Kirkuk and its surrounding oil wells.
However, the city falls 32km outside the Kurds’ autonomous region and Baghdad insisted it was handed back. “Matters came to a head” when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum to include Kirkuk. To Baghdad, the move was further proof of “unchecked Kurdish expansionism.”
The clash puts the Trump administration in a “bind”, says Brennan Weiss in Business Insider. The US has supplied weapons to both sides in the fight against ISIS. Now those weapons are being used against each other. Iranian support for the PMF complicates things further, says Joshua Keating in Slate.
The peshmerga have been one of America’s “staunchest regional allies”, yet despite the “apocalyptic terms” in which Trump framed the Iranian threat last week, “Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability is seen as a larger priority, especially while ISIS still maintains… pockets of resistance”. On Monday Trump told reporters: “We’re not taking sides.”