That’s when the Kurds—in defiance of international pressure—held a vote on whether Kurdistan, including Kirkuk, should be an independent state. The nonbinding referendum passed with 90 percent of the vote, and latent Iraqi and regional tensions came to the surface in the process.
Ben Van Heuvelen, editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report, a publication focused on energy and security in Iraq, said in an interview that he believes the referendum pushed the Iraqi government to act. “Would this have happened had the referendum not been held?” he asked. “In my mind, the answer is just unequivocally that there’s no chance that this would have happened.”
Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, the British think tank, told me he believed that, in particular, Kirkuk’s inclusion by the Kurdistan Regional Government within the borders of a hypothetical independent Kurdistan set the Kurds “on a very dangerous path.” Kirkuk accounts for about 12 percent of the total oil produced in Iraq, and its status is considered disputed between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government; under the 2005 constitution, which entity it joins was to be decided by referendum, though Kirkuk has not held one of its own to decide. The KRG made the decision for them. “It’s a huge gamble being played by the president of the Kurdistan region,” he said, referring to Masoud Barzani. “And this is the consequence of it.”
Last week marked a turning point: Iraqi government forces recaptured Hawija, which is in the province of Kirkuk, from ISIS. The city was one of the last ISIS-held areas in northern Iraq, and lies southwest of the province’s capital, also called Kirkuk. From there, Iraqi forces were supposed to go to the border with Syria to battle ISIS. Instead, they marched northeast toward the city of Kirkuk and captured it Monday.
“Federal forces have achieved a large portion of their stated objective which is to reassert federal control over areas in which they were present before ISIS in 2014,” Van Heuvelen said.
They have Washington’s support, in theory. The U.S. position is that Iraqi federal forces should have a presence in all areas that are constitutionally defined as part of federally controlled Iraq, including Kirkuk. “The U.S. government has taken Baghdad’s side” on Kirkuk, Van Heuvelen said. (President Trump said Monday the U.S. wasn’t taking sides in the conflict.) “And to the extent that the U.S. is serving as a broker between the Baghdad government and Kurds, the party that it’s talking to is the Kurdish faction that is most conciliatory and most willing to compromise.”
It’s not just Arabs and Kurds facing off in Kirkuk; the dispute has also pit one Kurdish faction against another. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is one faction; it is allied with Iran and the U.S. and more open to reconciliation with Baghdad. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which organized the independence referendum and opposes Iraqi control of Kirkuk, is another. The PUK controls most of the city of Kirkuk, and as Iraqi forces drew closer to it, some peshmerga allied with the group withdrew from their positions. Areas where the Iraqi military was reported to be in firefights with peshmerga were reportedly controlled by KDP fighters.