The Kurds and the Iraqi government are two of the most important members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, but a dispute over a key oil hub has now turned these partners against each other.
Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi ordered the Iraqi Security Forces to assault Kirkuk at dawn Monday morning. Kurdish forces, who were in control of the city for three years, largely fled before any major exchanges of fire could occur. The move was denounced by the Kurdish Peshmerga (Kurdistan's army), as tantamount to a declaration of war. Abadi insisted he had to retake the city due to fears that Iraq could be partitioned.
"The decision of the parliament is for ... the government to implement the rule of law and the sovereignty of Iraq all over the country," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's former national security advisor, in an interview with CNN. "This is the federal government exercising the rule of law over Iraq."
Kirkuk is the oil capital in northern Iraq. It produces nearly half of Iraq's oil exports, making it a key prize for whoever owns it. The Kurds took the city, which lies approximately 60 miles south of their capital, Erbil, three years ago after ISIS forces steamrolled through the Iraqi Security Forces who were supposed to defend it.
Many civilians attempted to flee the city as the Peshmerga withdrew, leading to massive traffic jams on the city's main roads. Others celebrated with the Iraqi fighters in the streets as they entered. Kirkuk, like Iraq itself, is ethnically diverse. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians all inhabit the city and its surrounding area, and all lay some kind of claim to it.
Some reports claimed that the assault included units from the Popular Mobilization Forces, a wing of the Iraqi Security Forces backed by Iran. The mostly Shiite PMFs have been known to commit abuses against Sunnis in areas they have reclaimed from ISIS, and the same could happen in Kirkuk.
The assault comes at a precarious time for Kurdish-Iraqi relations. While Kurdistan is technically part of Iraq, it operates autonomously, with its own government and military. The Kurdish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq three weeks ago, creating tension with Baghdad.
While direct conflict between the two sides has been minimal, it puts the U.S. in an awkward diplomatic position. The U.S. supports both sides with arms and money, some of which were supposedly used in the assault. U.S. officials have encouraged the two sides to cease fighting one another and focus on destroying the remnants of ISIS. Whether they will actually do so remains to be seen, but it is clear that the issues in Iraq will exist beyond the terrorist group.