Iraqi Army Seized Kirkuk – Security Risks
20 Oct 2017
On 16 October 2017, the Iraqi Army commenced an operation to secure Kirkuk, supported by a number of irregular, pro-Iranian militia units. The two-pronged offensive was launched in a bid to retake the Kurdish held city and its associated infrastructure and oil fields. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the Iraq army to impose security upon Kirkuk, in cooperation with the population of the city and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, in the wake of a recent Kurdish referendum for independence from Iraq.
- Iraqi forces seized Kirkuk and the surrounding area.
- Thousands of civilians fled Kirkuk amid fears of sectarian violence and open warfare.
- Limited fighting was reported as Kurdish forces withdrew.
Armed Conflict: On 16 October 2017, the Iraqi Army commenced an operation to secure Kirkuk, supported by a number of irregular, pro-Iranian militia units. The two-pronged offensive was launched in a bid to retake the Kurdish held city and its associated infrastructure and oil fields. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the Iraq army to impose security upon Kirkuk, in cooperation with the population of the city and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, in the wake of a recent Kurdish referendum for independence from Iraq.
The Iraqi government has reported that it has seized control of the city’s airport, in addition to the North Oil Company oil field and the strategic K1 military base. Iraqi forces also gained control over the Taza Khurmatu district in the southeast of the city.
Iraqi forces briefly exchanged fire with Peshmerga troops on Taza at the Kirkuk intersection and Maryam Bag bridge. It is reported that a number of troops on both side were wounded in the exchange, however no precise figures have been released. At present, both sides report that the exchange of fire was due to a breakdown in communication, and Peshmerga forces have, otherwise. withdrawn peacefully ahead of the Iraqi advance.
SOLACE GLOBAL COMMENT
The effort to seize Kirkuk is the latest in a series of offensives seeking to regain lands that have been out of government control. Earlier offensives in Mosul and Tal Afar have been against the Islamic State group, with the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces cooperating with each other and the US-led coalition. Despite the different change in opposition, all the recent Iraqi offensives are aligned in their intent to reunify Iraq into a discrete and stable political entity.
Thousands of Kirkuk’s citizens fled the city as Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) occupied areas surrounding Kirkuk as part of Iraq’s efforts to restrain the Kurdish region’s autonomy. The operation occurred in direct response to the 25 September referendum on Kurdish regional independence from Iraq. The central government declared the vote unconstitutional and, along with neighbouring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote and imposed a blockade on the region. The US, a military supporter of both the Kurdish Autonomous Region and Iraq, also opposed the referendum and urged both sides to remain focused on the defeat of Islamic State. A large number of Kurdish citizens in Kirkuk are reluctant to remain in the city if it comes under the influence of Iran-supported Shia-militias, and many opted to withdraw along with the Peshmerga forces. This is likely to lead to persistent disruption throughout major urban areas in Kurdistan, particularly Erbil, as refugees seek shelter.
The borders of the Kurdish Autonomous Region have been an ongoing source of conflict between Iraq and the Kurdish government. Kirkuk and the surrounding region remains constitutionally part of Iraq, however it was Kurdish Peshmerga forces which successfully secured the city against the advancing Islamic State, leading to the present disputed ownership. This tension has been further exacerbated as control of Kirkuk allows the exploitation of the surrounding oil fields, a key wealth generator for both factions. Additionally, both Turkey and Iran, key allies of Iraq, are unwilling to permit Iraqi Kurds greater independence for fear of inciting unrest in their own substantial Kurdish populations. This external pressure is likely to continue to drive the friction between the Kurdish region and the Iraqi Federal Government, regardless of whether the Kurds comply and fully surrender their claims on Kirkuk. The extent of the external pressure being applied to this dispute was effectively highlighted when a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al Quds force flew into Kirkuk to meet with Kurdish leaders immediately before the withdrawal of Peshmerga troops. The exact nature of the negotiations remains unclear.
Although fighting has remained limited to this point, and the situation remains broadly peaceful, it is highly likely that protracted negotiations will lead to continued instability in the region. Protests in Erbil, Kirkuk, and Baghdad are likely in response to these events, and further armed clashes remains a realistic probability. Similarly, it is likely that the hand-over between federal and regional security forces will be contentious and marked by poor information sharing and non-cooperation. This may create a security vacuum in which there is a realistic probability that Islamic State cells could re-emerge in the region and conduct attacks, although it is highly unlikely that they will be able to exert territorial control as they did in 2014-2015.
SECURITY ADVICEArmed ConflictHigh
Travellers and expatriates are advised to leave the region as a precaution. Travellers should be aware there is an increased security presence in Iraq, especially near Kirkuk and autonomous Kurdistan. If travelling within country, it is vital that travellers adhere fully to the instructions of security forces on either side; failure to comply may result in the use of lethal force.
It is recommended that protests are avoided. It is likely police will use forceful measures against demonstrators given recent history and the possibility for a sectarian divide between security forces and the public. Political gatherings may initially seem peaceful but can escalate quickly into violence. Political developments often see a rise in attacks from terror groups. It would be advisable for travellers to maintain a low profile in the short-term and monitor local events. If currently in Kirkuk, it is recommended to contact the tour operator or airline for advice on rebooking return flights.
Solace Global would advise clients to employ enhanced security measures when visiting Iraq â airport meet and greet and a security driver for the length of a visit should be minimum security precaution. Travellers to certain areas may also wish to employ executive protection and armoured vehicles. The use of a travel tracking system with an integrated intelligence feed would permit travellers to remain informed with changes to the situation, and permit employers to effectively implement duty of care for deployed personnel.
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