Update Kirkuk – It appears that the Kirkuk offensive conducted by the security forces of the Government of Iraq (GoI) on Sunday and Monday (October 15-16) was more a coordinated movement into areas held by Kurdish forces and not so much a combat operation. Before or as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) moved into strategic military, government, and economic locations the Kurdish Peshmerga moved out. There were some clashes that caused some fatalities but they were minimal – when compared to what could have transpired.
Importance of Kirkuk. The city of Kirkuk, located in the province of Kirkuk, has had a mixed ethnic composition for many years. Looking back into history Kirkuk has always been on the fault line between the Kurds and Arabs. Kirkuk is contested for a number of reasons – it has a mixed population (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians) , is the location of significant oil fields, and it is an economic center for the region. In addition, there are some important military bases near the city – an army installation and a military air base.
Kirkuk and the Constitution. The status of the city was supposed to be determined by a referendum according to the new constitution that emerged after Saddam Hussein and his government was removed after the U.S. invasion. The referendum was never held and remains a source of discontent for many Kurds.
ISIS Offensive in August 2014. After winning battle after battle against the Iraq army the Islamic State turned its attention to the Kirkuk area (no doubt with the oil fields in mind). As ISIS advanced the Iraqi army fled in disarray. It left behind armored vehicles, artillery, and other weapons and equipment to be captured by ISIS. The Kurds, assisted with U.S. air power, prevented the capture of Kirkuk by ISIS.
Negotiated Withdrawal or Ultimatum? It appears that behind-the-scenes negotiations took place prior to the ISF move into Kirkuk city and the surrounding areas. Some reports say that the negotiations broke down and the Government of Iraq issued an ultimatum. At any rate the Kurds simply decided not to fight. Time will tell as ‘experts’ analyze this event over the next several weeks. Hopefully we will see some statements from the U.S., Government of Iraq (GoI), and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that clarify the situation.
Themes Emerging. In reading the media reports (across a wide spectrum) there are several ‘stories’ coming out that are attracting attention. These themes include the influence of Iran, escalation of tensions between Shia and Kurds, possible loss of the Kurds as an ally with the ISF in the fight against ISIS, diminishing hopes of independence for the Kurds of Iraq, loss of oil revenue to the Kurds, and the future of Kurdish autonomy within Iraq. A sampling of reporting on these themes is presented below.
Iranian Influence. The big winner in the defeat of ISIS in Iraq will likely be Iran. The United States has simply been outflanked diplomatically by the long-time regional rival to U.S. power in the Gulf region. Certainly Iran is a major player in the current dispute between the GoI and the Kurds. It’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) provides support to the Shia militias (Hashd al-Shaabi) – many who are currently at the gates of Kirkuk. In addition, the Federal Police (historically linked to Iran), are taking part in the Kirkuk occupation.
U.S. – Iran Relations. Iran has been reaping benefits from the war on ISIS. It has consolidated its position in Syria and Iraq. While presumably an ally in the Iraqi fight against ISIS it is at odds with the U.S. in Yemen and Syria. While the U.S. is urging restraint through diplomatic overtures to Tehran President Trump is threatening to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The Shia may very well be taking the lead (urged on by Iran) to oppose the move towards Kurdish independence and the continued holding of ‘disputed areas in Iraq’ by the Kurds forces.
Shia – Kurd Relations. The Kurds have been known to be a tolerant people towards other ethnic groups. As an oppressed people they have sympathized with the fate of the Shia, Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidi. However, the dyamics between the Shia and Kurds have taken a turn for the worse.
“Racism becoming a dangerous tool in Kurdistan”, by Michael Rubin, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), October 16, 2017.
“A new war in Iraq, now between Shia Arabs and Kurds”, The Economist, October 16, 2017.
Kurdish Fragmentation. The rival factions within Kurdistan are accusing each other of abandoning Kirkuk. However neither of the groups appeared to have fought the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) incursion into Kirkuk or the outlying strategic military and economic targets. The behind the scenes maneuvering that took place in the days prior to the move by the ISF into Kirkuk will certainly be interesting (if the moves are ever fully revealed). The Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have long been at odds with each – and their relationship (or lack of) has been a significant factor in being unable to present a unified Kurdish front to the central government. There are reports that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) worked very closely with the ISF to turn over areas to the Baghdad forces. In addition, it seems the PUK is working closely with Iranian officials to enhance its status in the aftermath of this event.
“Baghdad Retakes Kirkuk”, Soufan Group, October 17, 2017.
“Kurdish Dreams of Independence Delayed Once Again”, by Dexter Filkins, The New Yorker, October 16, 2017.
Loss of Oil Revenue. The taking of the oil fields by the central government of Iraq will severely restrict the amount of funds that the KRG will have available to run the region. This is at a time when the central government has sent little in funding to the Kurds for the administration of the region, providing government services, or to maintain the military forces of the Kurds. There are reported to be at least six oil fields in the area and the GoI’s security forces now control at least one of them.
Economic Strangle Hold. The borders of Kurdistan are subject to closure by the governments of Iran and Turkey. International flights into the airports located in Kurdistan have been stopped. For the moment, both nations are working closely with the government of Iraq to ensure the Kurdish referendum for independence held on September 25th does not lead to a declaration of independence by the Kurdish officials.
Fight Against ISIS. The Islamic State has been removed from almost all of the territory it captured in 2014 and 2015. It still remains in isolated pockets throughout Iraq and has areas under its control in the West of Iraq; especially along the Syrian border. ISIS is predicted to adapt its tactics – becoming (once again) an insurgent / terrorist group. Prolonged fighting between the ISF and the Peshmerga will detract from the future counterinsurgency operations that will be conducted against ISIS.
“What’s behind the dangerous escalation of tension between forces fighting ISIS in Iraq”, Stars and Stripes, October 16, 2017.
A Headache for the U.S. The tension between the Kurds and the central government is a headache for the United States. At the same time it is focused on eliminating (as much as that is possible) the ISIS presence in Iraq (and numerous other countries) it is trying to limit the spread of Iranian influence and military activities in the greater Middle East area. The elite Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) that the U.S. has trained, equipped, and advised (with U.S. SOF personnel at the tactical level) is now in Kirkuk in opposition to the Peshmerga.
U.S. Way Ahead? In and effort to de-escalate the tension the U.S. will put pressure on the Kurds to make some concessions in the days and weeks ahead. It probably has become clear to the inhabitants of Kirkuk that US support for the Kurds is a fragile and probably temporary arrangement. In addition, it will threaten the curtailment of assistance to the Government of Iraq in the fight against ISIS (money, equipment, weapons, trainers, advisors, air support, artillery support, etc.). 
 In the 1980s the Iraqi regime conducted an ethnic cleansing campaign in northern Iraq – removing Kurds from key areas of the region. In the 1990s Saddam Hussein conducted an ‘Arabization’ of Kirkuk; moving Kurds out of the city and Arabs into the city. This had a significant change in the ethnic composition. In 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kurds began returning to their homes. In 2014 the Iraqi army fled in the face of the Islamic State offensive in northern Iraq. The Peshmerga stopped the advance into many of the northern regions of Iraq and retook much of the Kirkuk area back from ISIS.
 See “We’re Not Taking Sides, Trump Tells Clashing Kurds, Iraqis”, Defense One, October 16, 2017.