Kirkuk Update – The offensive launched on Sunday, October 15th by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Iranian-backed militias continued into Monday. Initial news reports said that some of the oil fields have been seized as well as parts of Kirkuk.
(Information in this article is as of Monday, October 16, 2017)
ISF in Kirkuk. A lot of media reports say that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have entered Kirkuk. Elements of the 9th Division of the Iraqi army, the Federal Police, and the Counterterrorism Services (CTS) are involved in the Kirkuk security operation. In addition, Shia militias – Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) backed by the IRGC – are also taking part in the offensive; although the PMF may not have entered Kirkuk city proper.
Targets Secured. The Government of Iraq has stated that they have secured federal installations and strategic locations in and around the city of Kirkuk and in the province of Kirkuk. The government claims it now controls the K1 Air Base northwest of Kirkuk. In addition, they claim the Baba Gorgor oil field (near the K1 Air Base) is under their full control. Several government buildings in Kirkuk have been occupied by the ISF. Other possible targets that may have been secured include the offices of the North Gas Company (near K1 Air Base) and the Bai Hassan and Khabbaz oil fields.
Fracturing on Kurdish Front. The two rival parties of the Kurdish people are at odds with each other. There are reports of fighting between the PUK and KDP in Kirkuk after the PUK decision to hand over positions to the ISF.
Negotiated Withdrawal? A lot of international pressure is being exerted on the parties in dispute. Certainly the United States is in the lead in trying to negotiate a settlement. It appears that the Kurds agreed to withdraw from some areas of Kirkuk province as well as important military sites – such as the K1 Air Base.
Scale of Fighting. Some reports indicate that up to 100 casualties have resulted from the fighting. Reports vary but some Peshmerga troops fought while others withdrew from positions around Kirkuk. The fighting is less than was expected at the onset of the ISF move into Kirkuk. Some reports attribute the fighting to engagements between Peshmerga and the PMF units. Meanwhile U.S. authorities have minimized the fighting stating that any casualties have been the result of a “misunderstanding”. 
Will the Fighting Spread? There are media reports of fighting in other areas of Iraq where Kurdish forces hold disputed territory. Fighting has been reported in Sulamaniya and Diyala provinces. Once again these reports attribute the fighting between Kurds and Shia militia.
Kurds Fleeing? Thousands of Kirkuk residents fled north to safer areas to avoid a possible escalation of the fighting. Many cite the prospect of Shia militias entering the city.
Timing of the Independence Referendum? Some observers will likely look back and conclude that the Kurds scheduled their independence referendum poorly. The Iraqi Security Services have increased their capabilities over the past year as they have taken first Mosul, then Tal Afar, and finally Hawija. The last city is key as it is in the Al-Hawija District of the Kirkuk province. The fight for Hawija was ongoing (now concluded) at the same time that the referendum took place (Sep 25th). So the security forces of the Government of Iraq were fully mobilized to move a few miles east (one hour drive, 66 kms) to Kirkuk. Bad timing!
Government of Iraq Narrative. Part of the Government of Iraq’s narrative is that the operation was necessary to protect the people of Kirkuk and to “protect the unity of the country”. In addition, it cites the presence of PKK terrorists in the province. The government has named the offensive “Operation Impose Security in Kirkuk”.
PKK? The Iraqi government is stating that members of the Kurdish terrorist group are in Kirkuk opposing the ISF. The PKK, or Turkish Kurdistan Worker’s Party, is based in Turkey and has had a long-running conflict with the security forces of Turkey.
GoI Airpower? The success on the battlefield against ISIS was due in part to the artillery, air, and ISR support of the United States and its Coalition partners. But even without this international operational assistance the seaonsed Iraqi Security Forces and its Shia militias should be able to handle the Peshmerga if it keeps its objectives minimal. The Iraqi Air Force has steadily improved its capability and its capacity has grown over the past few years – so it should not be discounted if needed in an extended fight with the Kurds.
GoI in Driver’s Seat. The Government of Iraq has a new-found confidence. It’s security forces have attained success on the battlefield against ISIS strongholds. Most of Iraq has been liberated from the Islamic State fighters. The governments of Iran and Turkey are solidly behind Iraq on the Kurdish issue. The U.S. government and most of the international community issued proclamations against the independence referendum. The GoI seems intent to mix negotiations with force in the current dispute with the Kurds.
Possible Outcome? It appears that the Government of Iraq will try to recover the areas not held by the Kurds prior to the summer of 2014. These were the areas that the Iraqi army fled from and that the Islamic State fighters moved into – and that the Peshmerga subsequently fought ISIS and occupied. These disputed areas are in parts of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Ninawa provinces.
 See Coalition Statement on Military Movements Near Kirkuk, Operation Inherent Resolve, October 16, 2017.
Kirkuk – A Contested City in Northern Iraq, SOF News, October 15, 2017.
Kurdish Independence – A Regional Flashpoint, SOF News, October 4, 2017.
Independent Kurdistan – What are the Implications (RAND Paper), SOF News, December 9, 2016.
Kurdistan Update – 20161108, SOF News, November 8, 2016.
US Support of Kurds – A Temporary Arrangement?, SOF News, August 31, 2016.