- There is now a high risk of localised conflict between the Iraqi army, the PMUs, and the KRG Peshmerga in Kirkuk, where the Iraqi forces would seek to regain control of the oil fields with a view to undermining the fiscal viability of an independent Kurdistan.
- Despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s announcement on 12 October that the government “would not fight the Kurds”, his decision-making is hostage to escalatory actions by the PMUs, who ultimately report to Iran.
- By triggering an escalation through its proxy PMUs, Iran would seek to force the US into an unwelcome decision between stepping back and allowing the conflict to escalate, or standing by the Kurds and giving credibility to Iran’s narrative that Iraqi Kurdish independence is an attempt to create a “new Israel”.
Representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) claimed on 12 October 2017 that Iraqi Armed Forces, including the Iraqi army and the Shia-dominated paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), were planning an offensive on Kurdish-controlled areas in Kirkuk province.
The Rapid Response Unit, an elite formation with its own artillery units, formerly fighting the Islamic State, was deployed around Taza, 10 km south of Kirkuk city, on 13 October. This came after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s announcement on 12 October that the government “would not fight the Kurds”.
Kirkuk’s disputed status
With rich oil resources and a mixed ethnic make-up, including Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, Kirkuk is the subject of a long-standing dispute between the central government and the KRG. Legally, the province falls under Iraqi federal government authority, although the KRG has enjoyed de facto control over the province since the withdrawal of Iraqi government and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in response to Islamic State advances in northern Iraq between June and August 2014.
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