As Islamic Militants Continue Advance, Kurds Vow to Defend Kirkuk

By RUDAW  11.6.2014 – ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Fighting between the Islamic militants and the Iraqi army has spilled into small towns and villages of Kirkuk, Kurdish military leaders confirmed, as they vowed to defend the province’s Kurdish areas “with the last drop of our blood.” After the blitzkrieg capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second city in Nineveh province, the al-Qaeda splinter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has pressed on with attacks against Iraqi troops, seizing control of more areas northwest of the country.Fighting was reported mainly in the rural areas and small towns of Kirkuk, where large swathes of “disputed territories” are claimed both by Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and where the Kurdish Peshmarga forces have a strong military presence.

Brigadier Sarhad Qadir, chief of Kirkuk’s suburban police, confirmed that ISIS fighters are engaged in street battles with Iraqi forces in the Sunni city of Hawija.

“The ISIS has taken part of the city but security forces are still there, too,” he said.

As part of defensive plans, on Tuesday thousands of Peshmarga forces were deployed in the Kurdish city of Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk. The KRG has large areas of interest, outside the borders of the autonomous region, where the majority of the population are Kurds. “Two Peshmarga brigades have arrived in Tuz Khurmatu to protect people and their properties,” Mayor Shalal Abdul told Rudaw. He said that more Peshmarga reinforcements are expected to arrive in his region.

Tuz Khurmatu lies on the main highway that connects northern Iraq with the capital, Baghdad. Abdul said that just miles south of his city, in Sileman Beg, the ISIS and Iraqi forces were engaged in heavy fighting.

Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the KRG’s Peshmarga minister, told Rudaw it is unlikely for the war to reach the Kurdish parts of Kirkuk, including the capital. “This will not happen because we will defend Kirkuk to the last drop of our blood, and I am sure the youth will voluntarily defend that part of Kurdistan.”

Jaafar said that the stakes are higher for the Kurds in Kirkuk, which sits on vast reserves of oil and gas, and is regarded by the Kurds as the capital of a future state. “There are Peshmarga forces in Kirkuk,” Jaafar said. “In Mosul they (Iraqi government) did not want the Peshmarga to enter the city, or we would not have allowed what happened there to have happened.”

The minister reassured the people of Kurdistan, who share long borders with Nineveh province, saying there was no chance of the militants storming into the northern Kurdish enclave. “I assure them that this will not happen,” he said, adding that ISIS “do not have the capability to do so, and we will defeat them if they try.”

For the past five days ISIS fighters have engaged Iraqi security forces and police in Mosul, gaining control of nearly the entire city, including its airport and municipality. The jihadists are reported to have captured large caches of heavy weapons, abandoned by fleeing Iraqi forces. The surprise and brazen attack came as a shock to many, but Jaafar said what happened was not unexpected. “We had warned of the weakness of the Iraqi army and we knew that the radical groups can easily take over those areas,” he said. “But some officers in the Iraqi army thought hey were victorious in those areas, which turned out not to be the case,” he added.

Within the first few hours of the ISIS attacks, local officials in Mosul and some Iraqi officials in Baghdad called on Peshmarga forces for help.

However, Kurdish leaders remain cautious about stepping into the war, particularly because the ISIS fighters have said their fight is against Iraqi troops and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “Sending Peshmergas to any part of Iraq has to be according to plan and on the formal orders of the Kurdish president, who is the commander of Kurdistan’s armed forces,” Jaafar explained. “Then the Peshmerga will be ready to go anywhere.” In 2005, Peshmarga forces were rushed to Mosul to help Iraqi troops regain the city, after it fell to al-Qaeda in similar attacks. But this time, with Erbil and Baghdad locked in bitter quarrels over oil and the national budget, the Kurds are less keen to step into the conflict.