In the latest round of fighting in Iraq the Iraqi Security Forces have assaulted Kurdish Peshmerga positions next to the town of Altun Kupri. Artillery and armored vehicles, including US-made Humvees, have been used by both sides. It comes four days after the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shia militias conquered Kirkuk in a lighting advance that shocked the Kurdistan region and has left US policymakers concerned that their unified anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq is on the verge of falling apart.
Nabi Bulos, a special correspondent for the LA Times tweeted that fighting began around eight in the morning. Kurdish peshmerga pulled back from earthen berms they had erected days before. Since the Iraqi army took Kirkuk a new border of sorts had been made about 60km south of the Kurdistan capital of Kirkuk. Tens of thousands of Kurds fleeing Kirkuk have been passing through Altun Kupri. The town is populated by Turkmens and sits on the little Zab river near the town of Dibs. Over the last three years Dibs has been a base for Peshmerga forces fighting Islamic State. If the Kurds lose their defensive line on the river it would be another defeat for them. Although media showed several vehicles destroyed and burning there were conflicting reports whose vehicles they were. While more countries have not commented on the fighting, French foreign ministry spokesperson Agnes Romatet-Espagne said Paris was in close contact with Baghdad and Erbil. “We call on the federal government to restrain and fully respect the legitimate rights of the Kurds. We call on the regional government of Kurdistan to engage in a constitutional dialogue with Iraq.” Israel intelligence services minister Israel Katz told Tel Aviv radio 102 FM that it was important “to prevent an attack on the Kurds,” including the autonomy of their region.
According to local reports the Kurdish forces near Altun Kupri tried to blow up a bridge to slow the Iraqi advance. Kurdish forces were armed with heavy machine guns and at least one howitzer, but footage indicated the Iraqi forces had a dozen artillery pieces with them and large numbers of armored Humvees. Footage showed Kurds sheltering behind hastily made defensive berms with a plethora of vehicles, including pickup truck “technical”, improvised trucks usually kitted out with a heavy machine gun or anti-aircraft cannons on the back. The mismatched forces, with the Iraqis using standardized US-equipment and the Kurds making due with a mish-mash of weapons illustrates what three years of war against ISIS has done to both groups of fighters. The US has trained almost 80,000 Iraqi soldiers and around 25,000 Peshmerga. Kurdish forces often lack the anti-armor weapons needed to slow down vehicles and have few responses to Iraq’s M1A1 Abrams.
Kurds say that the Iraqi forces include not only elite Counter-Terrorism fighters but also Iranian-backed Shia militias often called Hashd al-Shaabi. Iraqis tend to stress that this is an Iraqi army operation, whereas Kurds emphasize the Iranian role. There are also divisions within the Kurdish side with some Kurdish leaders associated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan supporting the Iraqi army against Kurdish forces associated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party. This has created a complex and combustible mix over the last few days. Kurdish protesters in Khanaquin protesting the Iraqi army were allegedly fired upon on October 19th. On October 20th dozens of protesters gathered at the US consulate in Erbil demonstrating against US weapons being used by Iranian-backed militias.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that his government is determined to protect all its citizens and to guarantee security across the country. In an opinion piece at The New York Times this week he accused the Kurdistan Regional Government of being on the verge of bankruptcy. “After years of conducting unconstitutional oil sales and pocketing the revenue…my government intends to redress the inequitable distribution of our national resources to discourage corruption in the Kurdish region.” Abadi’s latest statements have changed his rhetoric since the days after the Kurdistan independence referendum when Baghdad threatened to return Kirkuk to federal authority as punishment for the independence vote in the disputed city.
The current clashes leave confusion on both sides and has left the Kurdish political landscape deeply divided and angry at what many see as the betrayal of the United States to support the Kurdish region and peaceful negotiations with Baghdad. In addition the Kurdish region is deeply divided by the political parties in Sulaymaniyah and those in Erbil, a division exacerbated by Iranian support for Iraq’s Kirkuk operation. The fighting at Altun Kupri is partly an Iraqi-Kurdish battle but it has deeper ramifications for the Kurdish region as a whole which has been weakened as a result of the Iraqi army’s advances and internal divisions. For the US the continued fighting is embarrassing as US equipment is deployed by the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, including rifles, Humvees and other weapons. Several US Senators, including John McCain, Chuck Schumer and Ted Cruz have expressed concern about the infighting and the Iranian empowerment that may result.