The brewing feud between Kurdistan and Iraq’s central government culminated this week after Iraqi troops, backed by Shiite militias, overrun oil-rich Kirkuk and several towns on the Iranian border.
The quick advance of the Iraqi government forces surprised many observers because they faced little resistance from Kurdish forces, which vowed to stand their ground and defend against the Iraqi troops.
Kirkuk, a diverse city just outside the autonomous Kurdistan region, assumed enormous symbolic significance for Kurds, who claim it to be the heart of their culture. Kurds positioned their forces in the city and other areas outside the Kurdistan region after driving out Islamic State militants in 2014.
Following the quick capture of Kirkuk on Monday, Iraqi forces overtook the Khanaqin area near the Iranian border. Sinjar, where ISIS inflicted genocide on the Yazidi minority in 2014, was taken by a Yazidi group close to the Iraqi government.
A group of ethnic Turkmens, who long complained about the Kurdish rule, paraded in central Kirkuk on Tuesday, celebrating the transfer of power to Baghdad. Many Kurds, who feared mistreatment, left the city before the arrival of Iraqi forces.
Kurdish forces, racked by political rivalry between two governing parties, failed to display unified resistance against the Iraqi troops and quickly retreated. Conflicting reports put the death toll as a result of a small skirmish outside Kirkuk early Monday at 12 people.
The setback in Kirkuk and adjacent areas kicked off a blame game. Only weeks after the independence referendum in Kurdistan and the euphoria over it, there was a growing discontent about the way the Kurdish leadership handled the situation. The U.S. largely remained silent, with President Donald J. Trump saying that Washington is not taking sides in the ongoing crisis.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi government also captured last two oilfields outside Kirkuk and announced that the oil production had fully resumed. Officials promised to double the oil output soon.
The loss of Kirkuk delivered a severe financial blow to Kurdistan, cutting a major source of revenue and dashing hopes that it could remain a self-sustaining state after a possible declaration of independence. Air and ground embargo imposed by neighboring states, as well as the loss of oilfields, put people in Kurdistan in a complicated situation, vindicating skeptics who warned against the “ill-timed referendum.”
Now that revenues from Kirkuk oilfields are out of reach, the Kurdistan region will likely expect Baghdad to share the 16 percent of the oil profits with the region. The latest developments can embolden Baghdad’s hand in possible negotiations with Erbil.
The victory against ISIS in Mosul and quick retake of Kirkuk, a city of 1 million people, which is rich in natural resources, helped improve the image of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. It also reinforced worries that Mr. Abadi, a close ally of Iran, may sway too much influence over a country deeply divided along sectarian lines.