Baghdad renews presence in oil-rich city of Kirkuk

  • Tomáš Kaválek
  • 23.10.2017 14:39

On 16 October, Iraqi federal forces began its advance into disputed territories that had been under Kurdish control since summer of 2014 when Iraqi forces withdrew from these areas facing Islamic State (IS). By 21 October, Baghdad reclaimed almost all of those areas including Shingal, Rabi’a, Mosul dam, parts of Khanaqin and the most importantly strategic oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish gains were thus reverted in a matter of days. Once again it has been shown that oil-rich Kirkuk is a major flashpoint between Erbil and Baghdad. Moreover, these events further highlighted internal rifts within Kurdish political landscape.

There have been reports of casualties on both sides but given the scale of the operations, it seems there has been an agreement between the Kurds and Baghdad on handing over certain positions in Kirkuk without fighting. Moreover, while Iraqi forces employed large force equipped with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces and Humvees, Peshmerga forces are only in possession of lighter arms. The most intense clashes appeared to have occurred on 20-21 October in the strategic town of Altun Kopri that oversees the main road connecting Erbil and Kirkuk on the northern border of Kirkuk governorate. If the Iraqi forces decide to push further north it will most likely result in a large fighting.


Kirkuk is the economic and strategic backbone of Kurdish ambition for statehood.


Kirkuk, where the oil flows

Kirkuk is the economic and strategic backbone of Kurdish ambition for statehood or even self-sustainable federal region within Iraq since Kurdistan Region’s (KR) economy is largely dependent on oil revenues (and since 2014 it has faced financial crisis). Three major Kirkuki oil fields (Khormala, Avana and Bay Hassan), previously under Kurdish control, produce around 250 thousand barrels of oil per day. Moreover, Kirkuk hosts significant oil infrastructure, including refineries and pumping stations that ensure oil flow into the Kurdish-controlled pipeline towards the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

There is also an older pipeline running through Baghdad-controlled territory to Ceyhan, which stopped operating in 2014 as it runs through IS territory. Were the older pipeline rejuvenated as Iraqi oil minister Jabar al-Luaibi announced on 10 October, Baghdad could bypass the Kurdish pipeline. However, such plans are at best long-term since even prior to 2014 the pipeline was not in a good shape and its flow was frequently halted due to technical issues.

Kurdish division

Baghdad’s advances and responses from Kurdish leadership highlighted existing internal divides in Kurdish political landscape in Iraq. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) officials, from which hails KR’s president Barzani, initially blamed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) for abandoning its positions in Kirkuk to Iraqi forces. On 16 October, president Barzani’s senior advisor Hemin Hawrami blamed the PUK for leaving its positions upon the agreement with Shia militias. The Ministry of Peshmerga said on 16 October that PUK officials were complicit to handing over infrastructure to Iraqi forces. Elements of the PUK rallied around Ibrahim Ahmad, wife of late Jalal Talabani, and other members of Talabani family such as Pavel denied the allegations. There is also another wing of the PUK represented for example by KR’s vice president Kosrat Rasul or former Kirkuk governor Najmaddin Karim that sides with the KDP.

However, on 16-21 October Iraqi forces moved into KDP-dominated areas in northern Nineveh governorate, including Shingal, Rabi’a and Zummar. This advance also suggests the existence of an understanding between the KDP and Baghdad since no major fighting occurred in the area, apart from a small clash nearby Mosul dam on 18 October. In the end, the blame game within the Kurds simply tries to shift the responsibility for the Iraqi army advances ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections on 1 November.


Shia forces with itchy fingers on their triggers could provoke a war.


The advances of Iraqi forces (red) into the Kurdish-controlled territories between 11 and 21 October. Source:


Tensions to persist

Kurdish media and officials largely argue that the core of Iraqi forces entering disputed areas, including Kirkuk, are predominantly-Shia militias Hashd al-Shaabi backed by Iran. However, the situation on the ground in Kirkuk itself suggests they played rather an auxiliary role. The main basis of federal forces consisted of the elite Golden Division, 9th Armoured Division and Federal Police. After all, while PM Haidar al-Abadi wishes to show resolve after the Kurdish referendum by renewing authority over Kirkuk, he certainly has no interests in a full-fledged war with the Peshmerga.

It seems PM al-Abadi apparently managed to sideline the bulk of the strongly pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi from advancing in disputed territories, especially in Kirkuk. (It is expected that they will be more substantially engaged in the anticipate offensive on al-Qa’im in Euphrates river valley west of Baghdad.) These forces with itchy fingers on their triggers could provoke a war. For example leader of pro-Iranian Asai’b Ahl al-Haq Qais Khazali voiced readiness to fight over Kirkuk on 8 October.


The disputed territories will return to pre-2014 model.


While the situation in Kirkuk is likely to gradually calm down and avoid escalating into an open conflict with Iraqi forces, the bottom line is that the disputed territories will return to the pre-2014 model. Kirkuk will remain disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, locked in a volatile situation without any prospect of much-needed development not only of existing infrastructure but the city itself. None of the actors would be willing to substantially invest into the area if they are not sure it would ultimately fall under their control.


Tomáš Kaválek is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno and a Middle East and North Africa Analyst at Association of International Affairs (AMO).

About author: Tomáš Kaválek


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