WASHINGTON — President Trump said today that the U.S. will not be “taking sides” as Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias forcibly took Kirkuk overnight and pulled down the flag of Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement early today that shortly before midnight the Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces advanced from Taza Khormatu in a “major, multi-pronged operation” from South Kirkuk to enter the city and take over the K-1 Air Base as well as oil fields.
At about 2:30 a.m. “they attacked Peshmerga Forces from two fronts in the Taza-Kirkuk intersection and Maryam Bag bridge, both in south of Kirkuk, using U.S. military equipment, including Abrams tanks and Humvees.”
“Significant forces” were also present in Maktab Khalid in southwest Kirkuk, they added.
Peshmerga destroyed “at least five U.S. Humvees used by PMF.”
“Peshmerga will continue to defend Kurdistan, its peoples and interests,” the KRSC vowed. “This was an unprovoked attack following days of Iraqi military deployments to Kurdistan’s borders.”
— KR Security Council (@KRSCPress) October 16, 2017
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued an alert advising U.S. citizens to “shelter in place” as Iraqi forces conducted “security operations in the vicinity of Kirkuk City.”
Defense Secretary James Mattis repeated to reporters Friday the administration position on Kurdish independence: “We thought the referendum was an ill-timed political event, and that it could distract from the combined effort against ISIS.”
Mattis said the goal was “trying to tone everything down, and let’s figure out how we go forward without losing our sight on the enemy, at the same time recognizing that we’ve got to find a way to move forward.”
Kurds voted overwhelmingly Sept. 25 in support of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of Kurdistan Regional Government becoming an independent state. In response, Baghdad demanded that the Kurdish government relinquish its airports and oil revenue.
A few days later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed in a statement that the U.S. government “does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum.”
“The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” Tillerson said.
Asked today at a Rose Garden press conference about the seizing of Kirkuk and concerns for a larger conflict, Trump said, “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”
“Let me tell you, we’ve had, for many years, very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know. And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been in there in the first place. We should have never been there,” Trump added. “But we’re not taking sides in that battle.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the administration needs to “immediately initiate a dialogue between the two sides to ensure a peaceful resolution between the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurds that doesn’t jeopardize the ongoing fight against ISIS, put at risk the gains made to date, and determines the best way to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds.”
This afternoon, the Peshmerga General Command issued a statement calling the attack “a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan.”
“This attack, waged by the Iraqi government, Hashd al-Shaabi and forces associated with the Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, is in retaliation against the people of Kurdistan who have asked for freedom,” they said. “It is revenge against the honorable people of Kirkuk who have shown bravery.”
The Peshmerga stressed again that the Kirkuk attack was “launched by American weapons, armored vehicles, tanks and other coalition weapons.”
“These American weapons have been given to the Iraqi army and Hashd under the name of the war on ISIS. This was done at a time when the Peshmerga, also in the fight against ISIS, were not given necessary weapons to defend themselves against the terrorists,” they added.
“We hereby reassure the people of Kurdistan that Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces is defending bravely with high morale on every front despite having some impurity on the part of some officials and plots by the Iraqi government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. We also reiterate that it is impossible for the will of the people of Kurdistan to be broken by these plots and also impossible for us to allow the enemies of the people of Kurdistan to succeed,” the statement continued. “We call upon all the real Peshmerga of the country and the resilient and enemy-defeating people to do all they can to resist and defeat the attackers. The first person responsible for selling this war to the people of Kurdistan is Abadi’s government that should pay a heavy price for this unfairness.”
Saad Hadithi, an Iraqi government spokesman, confirmed to Kurdish station Rudaw that Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was in Iraq acting as an advisor to the Shiite militia.
“The position of the Iraqi government has stemmed from the constitution. The Iraqi constitution has to be respected as it has been drafted by the political parties including the Kurdistan coalition,” Hadithi said, adding there is no such thing as the “Kurdistan nation.”