The Kurdish collapse in Kirkuk was shockingly sudden.
Iraqi troops, police and Iranian-backed militias known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) had massed south of the ethnically mixed city for days, prompting defiant messages from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its Peshmerga fighters. But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had denied that the movements were preparation for an attack, dismissing such claims as “fake news”.
On Monday morning, Baghdad’s units finally advanced. After isolated clashes, the Peshmerga swiftly withdrew from their positions, after one Kurdish faction apparently struck a deal with the government.
The only resistance came from groups of lightly armed local Kurds with little in the way of military training. They did not mount a serious defence, and the Iraqi flag was flying over the city centre by evening, as fleeing civilians clogged exit roads. Federal government troops took control of the oil fields that had provided much of the KRG’s income, as well as other energy infrastructure, an airport and a strategic military base.
Within 48 hours, Kurdish forces had abandoned yet more disputed areas that had been key to their hopes of an expanded, independent Kurdish region: Sinjar, Bashiqa, Makhmour and others – thousands of square kilometres of territory.
It was a shocking reversal of fortune for Iraq’s Kurds, who, buoyed by a controversial referendum that found overwhelming support for secession, seemed sure they would finally be able to carve out their own state.
Kirkuk, held since 2014 by the Peshmerga after the Iraqi army fled from an offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and its oil revenues were central to that proposition. Its loss has dashed hopes of independence and even endangered the Kurds’ existing autonomy.
Just a month ago, Iraq’s Kurdish region appeared stronger than ever, with vast swaths of disputed territory under its control, powerful allies and an international reputation bolstered by the fight against ISIL.
But the run-up to the September 25 secession vote brought fierce opposition from the federal government in Baghdad, as well as from neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which have sizeable Kurdish populations of their own. The United States and other Western allies pleaded with KRG President Masoud Barzani to cancel or delay the referendum, but he pressed on, and 92 percent of voters chose secession.
In Baghdad, al-Abadi threatened military action if the results were not annulled, while the federal government cracked down on the Kurdish region’s existing autonomy, halting international flights to its airports and demanding control over all oil flows.
The decision to hold the referendum in the face of near-universal condemnation now appears to have been a colossal miscalculation, analysts say, with Barzani vastly overestimating the KRG’s political and military heft and undermining his own legitimacy.
“I think Kurdistan has been humbled and the leadership has been humbled,” Chatham House fellow Renad Mansour told Al Jazeera. “The people that have been pushing for this genuinely thought Kurdistan was in a special place, that they could stick up to the US and their neighbours.”
After retaking Kirkuk this week, al-Abadi demanded that the previously independent Peshmerga be brought under federal control. “The illegal referendum is over, its results invalid and belongs in the past,” he said on Twitter. “We call for dialogue based on Iraq’s national constitution.”
The Baghdad-Erbil rift has seen two crucial components of the US anti-ISIL coalition turn their guns on each other even before the armed group has been eliminated in Iraq. The US provided both Iraqi and Peshmerga forces with arms and training, but Washington has been slow to react to the escalation in tensions. A pre-referendum offer to mediate between the rival governments was too late to make a difference.
In the wake of this week’s humiliating loss of territory and reputation, animosity has spiked between the two major political blocs in Iraq’s Kurdish region: Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Each has Peshmerga units under their control, and it was the PUK’s fighters who first withdrew from their posts south of Kirkuk. The KDP Peshmerga later retreated from other positions as well.
The rival parties wasted no time in levelling allegations of treason at each other. In a statement on Tuesday, Barzani said that “people from a certain political party” had “unilaterally paved the way” and handed over Kirkuk.
KDP officials have also accused PUK factions of selling out the Kurds to Iran, in reference to the withdrawal deal, which was rumoured to have been struck between Iran’s Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani and senior PUK figure Bafel Talabani. The PUK, in turn, blamed Barzani for his role in forcing through the referendum despite their misgivings and levelled corruption allegations at his government, which contains a number of family members.
Iran-allied political actors, such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri, were later photographed in Kirkuk, stirring American fears that Tehran had masterminded the Kirkuk operation.
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera that the Iranian role may have been overstated and that it primarily took advantage of Kurdish political divisions. The KDP has devoted much of its time to loudly blaming Iran for the current situation, a position that will appeal to US Republicans – but with independence now resolutely off the table, Iraq’s Kurdish region’s ruling party will have its own problems to deal with, Stein said.
“They are in a profoundly weak position; they have to compromise with Baghdad, but [Barzani] whipped up so much national sentiment that that will be difficult,” Stein said. “It’s a total debacle for the KDP, and it’s a total debacle for the Barzani family.”