Kurds, still hoping for independence, fight on after losing Kirkuk

Kurds displaced from Kirkuk by the ongoing conflict between Iraq, allied with Iranian-backed militia group Hashd al Shaabi, and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Erbil. They are asking where the international community was and why it didn’t help them to keep Kirkuk. (Photo: Elizabeth Fitt/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

ERBIL —  In the ongoing crisis over independence for the Kurds of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government is accusing the United States of helping terrorists by supplying military support for Iraqi government forces in the fight for Kirkuk province.

In a statement sent to Yahoo News, the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, charged that the Iraqi Shia militias, known as the Hashd al Shaabi, “launched a large-scale attack on the peshmerga forces using American weapons that have been supplied to the Iraqi army” earlier this month. The attack was carried out “with the participation of Iranian artillery,” the statement charged.

The Kurdish prime minister’s office also provided a photo of one of the Iraqi commanders, identified as “deputy head of the Popular mobilization forces  [PMU] Hashd al Shaabi – Abu Mahdi Muhandis.” Muhandis was described as a “listed terrorist by [the] U.S.”

Muhandis was indeed considered to be a terrorist by the U.S. after a series of bombings in Kuwait in the 1980s. He was also known to work for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Deputy head of the Popular mobilization forces [PMU] Hashd al Shaabi, Abu Mahdi Muhandis, left, with other Hashd al Shaabi commanders. (Courtesy of the Kurdish authorities)

The Iraqi authorities, in recent days, took full control of oil-rich Kirkuk after peshmerga forces surrendered their positions.

The conflict was ignited when the Kurds, an ethnic group occupying a semiautonomous region in the northern part of Iraq, voted to secede and form an independent Kurdistan, though the vote itself was nonbinding.

According to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, the ease with which the Iraqi military reclaimed Kirkuk demonstrated national unity, and Kurdish independence was “a thing of the past.” While the referendum vote was not binding, it was opposed by every country except Israel.

Slideshow: Iraq orders 24-hour truce in standoff with Kurds over Kirkuk takeover by Iraqi forces >>>

The Iraqi Media War Cell, the military’s media team, told Yahoo News the Kurdish government is “accused of treason.” Iraqi courts have issued arrest warrants for the Kurdish vice president and other Kurdish leaders. The media team also said citizens were celebrating the Iraqi military’s control and emphasized that soldiers would not discriminate against any ethnic group, including Kurds, Turkmen, Christians or Arabs.

But the Kurdish authorities accuse the Iraqi government of allowing the Iranian-funded Shia militias to lead an ethnically divisive campaign against the Kurdish people.

Smoke rises from a burning house during clashes between members of Iraqi Shiite group known as Hashd al Shaabi (the Popular Crowd) and Kurdish groups in Tuz, southern Kirkuk city, Iraq, Oct. 17, 2017. Iraqi military forces launched operations against Kurdish forces around Kirkuk early on Oct. 16, 2017, and took control of the largest oil fields in the disputed city after Kurdish forces withdrew. (Photo: Bareq al-Samarrai/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

According to the Kurdish regional Security Council, Muhandis launched “unprovoked attacks against the people of the Kurdish region” using heavy weapons.

Iraq is one of few countries in the Middle East region that maintain a relationship with both Tehran and Washington. But the U.S. has opposed the growing influence of Iranian Shia militias in Iraq and discouraged their involvement in the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S. does supply the Iraqi military with foreign military funding amounting to more than $250 million a year in weapons and training. But the American-led coalition that has been fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq said it is “monitoring movements of military vehicles and personnel in the vicinity of Kirkuk. These movements of military vehicles, so far, have been coordinated movements, not attacks. Coalition forces and advisers are not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire. The Coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid escalatory actions.” U.S. forces also said their sole mission is focused on defeating ISIS.

In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, four members of Congress have noted the Kurds’ alarming warnings over the Shia militias and asked the State Department to intervene and “broker an immediate ceasing of offensive hostilities” and to “seek a long term diplomatic solution.” The representatives were Ralph Abraham, R-La., Jared Polis, D-Colo., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.

The letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

During Tillerson’s trip to the Middle East, he said the U.S. is “concerned and a bit sad,” adding, “We have friends in Baghdad and friends in Irbil, and we encourage all parties to enter into discussion.”

Tillerson went on to raise questions about Iran’s influence over Iraq, but Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi has rejected Tillerson’s concerns.

The U.S. sided with the Iraqi government against holding the referendum and has not committed to helping the Kurdish region gain independence. But it has also supplied the Kurdish peshmerga with weapons, equipment and training in the fight against ISIS.

The Kurdish authorities have held off declaring independence since the referendum by freezing the results. But Abadi says the move does not go far enough: “We won’t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the Constitution.”

The Kurdish officials have also accused the militias of torturing Kurdish citizens and sent Yahoo News video clips that often included screams in the background. Yahoo News could not independently verify the content of the videos.

Kurds from Kirkuk stage a protest in front of the U.S. Consulate in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan Region, Iraq, Oct. 20, 2017. The protesters hold banners reading “Kurds are under attack by Shiite Hashd al Shaabi militants using American weapons.” Iraqi forces and Shiite-led pro-government Hashd al Shaabi militias moved to reclaim control over Kirkuk from the local Kurdish authority following the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Kurdistan. (Photo: Gailan Haji/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Kurdish protesters have also taken to the streets in opposition to the popular mobilization forces run by Muhandis, and aid organizations are concerned about civilians caught in the middle of clashes between the Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. At least 30,000 Kurds have been displaced, according to Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch stated, “Iraqi and Kurdish forces need to resolve the current crisis in ways that fully respect human rights and avoid harming civilians or their property,” and they have recommended the Iraqi authorities investigate allegations of looting and destruction of homes.

The Iraqi prime minister has continued to defend his position and is working on strengthening ties with both Turkey and Iran. But Kurdish authorities are concerned Iraqi officials have forfeited an opportunity to negotiate on the future of the province and arrive at a peaceful solution, choosing instead a military solution.


Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.


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