Kirkuk – Wars of Deception And Elections – Sheri Laizer | Exclusive to         

The plotters left the retaking of Hawija until after the fall of Mosul in service of a wider master plan. Coordinating Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) and units of the Iraqi Army, Iran helped al-Abadi capture Kirkuk and the areas the Kurds had conquered from IS – the Kurdish forces would become superfluous to requirements after the recapture of Mosul.

Some one hundred years ago, in 1912, Ely Bannister Soane, travelled in disguise to Mesopotamia and Kurdistan penning the lively book of that same name. Soane, who was fluent in Persian, Kurdish and Turkish, experienced Kirkuk as a hot, busy town where each race was still distinguishable by language, idiosyncrasies and traditional dress, observing “Kirkuk is famous for Turkomans, fruit and crude oil, all of which abound. The town, which must have a population of of at least 15,000, is one of the trilingual towns of the Kurdistan borders. Turkish, Arabic and Kurdish are spoken by everyone, the first and last being used indifferently in the bazaars…Turkish power is very evident here.


Being near to Baghdad – seven days – and possessing a Turkish-speaking population, it is in a position to supply a large number of youths to the military schools, which half-educating the lads, turn them out idle and vicious, and incapable of existing without a uniform…. Consequently, Kirkuk is full of uniforms containing the scum of the town, often drunken brutes – who sap the life of the place…I found everywhere an astonishing honesty and rough goodwill that wins the heat of a stranger, and this notwithstanding the fact that I was taken for a Persian, and a Shi’a Muhammadan, with whom the Sunni have very little sympathy…” 1

The Minority Rights Group confirmed the Ottoman identification observing of the Turkmen: “They are probably descended from Turkic garrisons or, in the Shi’a case, fugitives from early Ottoman control, although they consider themselves to be descendants of the earlier Seljuq Turks. Approximately 60 per cent are Sunni, while the remainder are Ithna’ashari or other Shi’a…Turkmen historical origins in Iraq are tied, at least in part, to the role of protectors of the Ottoman empire from tribal raids. Early Turkmen were settled at the entrances of the valleys that gave access to the Kurdish areas, and this historic pacification role has led to strained relations with the Kurds.” 2

Generations of Kirkukis since, have lived in the ‘trilingual town’ in much in the same manner – that is until recently. Watching the flames from the flare stacks flicker skywards as the international companies come and go, the ‘honesty’ of Kirkuk’s traders that Soane had extolled is long gone.

Tehran is no friend

The Kurdistan Independence referendum has widely been used by Baghdad and Tehran to drive the Kurdish population from Kirkuk (and from other contested areas retaken from ISIS). Aides to Abadi told the Washington Post how the Iraqi PM had “informed U.S. diplomats of his intention to order forces into Kirkuk, but did not reveal the timing and scale of the operation…” 3 The British were also aware of the plan.

Abadi had held secret talks with both Iran and Turkey in August 2017, some two months before Iraqi Armed forces spearheaded by the Hashd al-Shaabi rolled into Kirkuk, Sinjar and the borders with Kurdistan. 4

Kurdistan 24 reported how on Aug. 29, the KRG and the Iraqi government had agreed to jointly export Kirkuk oil via the Kurdistan Region pipelines to Turkey but the pipeline had been attacked several times and the oil had to be re-injected into the ground. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, wife of the terminally ill PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, had asked Abadi to stop exportation via Kurdistan’s pipelines in an official letter explaining the position of the PUK on the Erbil-Baghdad joint deal.

The following day, spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Bahram Qasimi, warned the “decision to include Kirkuk in the referendum is a serious and provocative issue.”

On 31 August, Abadi announced victory over ISIS in the northern city of Tel Afar.5

Faleh al-Fayed, Iraq’s National Security Advisor, who plans operations with the PMF had also used the justification of fighting ISIS: “Some rich Gulf countries are using the measures of their wealth to give legitimacy to these groups,” he said, noting the quality of the Islamic State’s equipment. “The money supporting Daesh stinks of oil. … Daesh exported oil through Turkey”. What better move therefore to control the oil themselves.

On 3 September, the Imam Ali Brigade linked to former Prime Minister al-Maliki, warned that it would attack Kirkuk if the city was annexed to Kurdistan in outcome of the referendum. Its spokesman and commander of its forces, Ayoub Faleh (Abu Azrael), intimated that Iran had given the green light to attack Kirkuk if it decided to secede from Iraq. “We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed” he warned.

In a Sept. 4 interview with Rudaw, secretary-general of the Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, a close ally of Quds Force chief, Qasim Soleimani, 7 who fought on the side of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, threatened they would resort to arms if a federal system were established “on an ethnic or sectarian basis” in parallel with Tehran’s stand towards its own minorities and the Kurdish region of Iran.

The Atlantic, like other commentators, long before this stage was reached expressed anxiety over the growing influence and political direction taken by the PMF (Hashd al-Shaabi) noting that “Five of the largest units in the PMF receive money, support, and direction from Iran. Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq were significant Iranian proxies during the coalition occupation of Iraq, and are now major units in the PMF, while Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada has openly fought in Syria for the Assad government and the Badr Organization, perhaps the most prominent Iranian proxy, led by a close friend of Qassem Soleimani, the head of …The Badr Organization and other Iranian proxies now have troops traversing Iraq from Diyala province, through Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk provinces, to Nineveh Province and the road into Syria.”8

Well before the Kurdish independence referendum was even diarized, Iran was leading the way for a change of power in the north.

Hawija – Hashd al-Shaabi’s staging-post for Kirkuk

The plans to retake Kirkuk also present as part of the tactical reasoning behind the delay in the re-taking of Hawija from ISIS, some 28 miles west of Kirkuk. On 6 September, al-Abadi had said “during his weekly press conference  that Hawija’s liberation will be in the hands of Iraqi forces and will not involve peshmerga forces. In other words, Kurdish forces are not to advance from their current positions as Iraqi forces move toward them…” 9

Once the advance got underway, PMU units simply moved into the area around Kirkuk after liberating Hawija from ISIS on 5 October – 11 days later Kirkuk was also in their hands.

In an interview with Newsweek after the fact, Massoud Barzani opined that Baghdad would have gone ahead even if the referendum had been cancelled. What surprised him was “to see Iraqi forces use weapons—that were given to them by the U.S. to fight ISIS—against their own citizens. 10

PUK politbureau member, commander, Mahmoud Senkawi, had warned on 8 September against an attack on Kirkuk on the day of the referendum, calling on Kurdish parties to take caution.

By 10 September, Iraqi Oil Minister, Jabbar al-Luaibi, was promising: “We will control all Kirkuk oil fields.’ 11 On the same day, Prime Minister al-Abadi threatened to remove the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, from office. 12

On 12 September, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution opposing the referendum and asked the administration to order all necessary measures to protect Iraq’s territorial integrity.

On 14 September the Iraqi Parliament voted to remove Najmaldin Karim.

On 11 October, the PUK’s Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) warned in a tweet how they were “receiving dangerous msgs Iraqi forces, [including] PMU & Fed Pol, are preparing major attack in South/West Kirkuk & North Mosul on Kurdistan.” But it would be the PUK’s Hero Ahmed and her son, Bafel, that would reach a secret agreement with Abadi to ‘peacefully’ concede the control of Kirkuk, further pressurized by Iran in the person of Qasim Soleimani.

Sherzad Yaba, a PUK advisor, argued: “We tried to make Barzani accept joint management between Erbil and Sulaimaniya over the fields but he strongly opposed it. To put an end to the illegitimate control of the KDP over Kirkuk oil, senior members from the PUK contacted both Baghdad and Tehran and encouraged the Iranians to build a pipeline to export Kirkuk crude through Bandar Abbas port.” Jabbar al-Luaibi and his Iranian counterpart, Bijal Zanganeh, had signed a memorandum on the project in February 2017. 13

Six days before the retaking of Kirkuk, al-Luaibi was claiming Iraq would re-open an old pipeline to Turkey bypassing the pipeline in the KRG, cutting the Kurds out of the picture. 14

On 12 October, just one day after the takeover of Kirkuk’s oil fields, Baghdad was head down in (further) talks with BP.

In December, a further deal was done with Iran and Russia’s Rosneft. Oil Minister Luaibi declared: “Between 30,000 and 60,000 bpd of Kirkuk crude will be delivered by tanker trucks to the border area of Kermanshah, where Iran has a refinery… Russia’s Rosneft agreed to invest in the pipeline and work with Erbil. agreeing to take control of Kurdistan’s main oil pipeline, boosting its investment in the autonomous region to $3.5 billion despite Baghdad’s military action…”. 15

On 20 February 2018, Middle East Business Intelligence reported that al-Luaibi is due in Turkey to discuss resuming Iraq’s oil exports from the north through Turkey’s Ceyhan port. 16 Part of the export package is already earmarked for the Kermanshah refineries in Iran. Exports will be routed through SOMO, Iraqi State oil marketer, instead of the KRG.

Purges of pro-independence figures in Kirkuk

After the take over of Kirkuk, pro-independence Kurds were subsequently relieved of their positions in Kirkuk’s administration and the Kurdish governor, Najmaldin Karim, driven out, his office vandalised by the PMU.17

The status of Kirkuk has not been resolved in accordance with the Constitution.

A MERI Policy report from September 2015 had observed: “Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution outlines a mechanism for resolving Kirkuk. However, the Article is ambiguous and can be easily interpreted as contradictory. While there is widespread agreement on the broad mechanisms put forward by the Article, political disagreement on specific aspects have curtailed progress. There has been little political will to push forward a solution on Kirkuk, and ten years after the writing of the Constitution, Kirkuk’s status remains unchanged. The December 2007 deadline proposed by the Article for referendum has passed.18. The reports authors noted the fundamental political changes that had taken place in Iraq since the writing of the Constitution with the advent of the Islamic State and resolution “entails, most importantly, that Kirkuk’s local actors take the lead in engaging with each other through pragmatic overtures based on compromise and reconciliation that can lay the basis for a long-term negotiated settlement. In the end, the fate of Kirkuk is for the Kirkukis to decide.”

Allowing Kirkukis to vote in the Kurdistan independence referendum did not go against the spirit of the Constitution and openly gave Kirkukis an electoral choice as to whether they wished to look to Kurdistan or to Baghdad.

MERI’s authors had observed two years before events leading to Kirkuk’s armed take-over: “While Article 140 establishes a three stage process of normalisation, census and referendum, it fails to address a number of key issues. These include voter eligibility, the governorate’s boundaries and the referendum question. Lack of political will and an ambiguous constitutional article has meant the political resolution of the status of Kirkuk has remained unanswered, with many viewing that any solution that favours the Kurds as a stepping stone towards Kurdish independence.” 19

What was less clear then was that the Shi’a-dominated government, the PMF and their backer, Iran, would seek to alter the identity of Kirkuk, and of Iraq permanently as an extension of Iran and establish a Shi’a swathe of unbroken control across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon to the borders of Israel.

On the official Facebook page of one of the PMF units, Eqbalpour, IRGC Quds Force commander, Qasim Soleimani’s representative is prominent shown with the Iraqi army’s 16th Division in an operation room making preparations to retake Hawija. In another picture taken in south Kirkuk on 14 October he stands with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and again alongside senior PMU leader in northern Iraq, Abu Raza Najar. He is also shown two days after the take over of Kirkuk in the city with several top PMU leaders in a picture that accompanies the announcement: “To the honorable people of Kirkuk, we congratulate you for these victories and confirm that Kirkuk province is under the control and protection of the federal government”.20

Around a week later, the Guardian cited an anonymous Iraqi Minister saying: “…The political and military campaigns around Kirkuk were organised by Suleimani…Make no mistake about it. Anyone who thinks he defers to Abadi does not understand how business is done in Iraq.”

The Guardian also noted that a meeting had been held between the two main Kurdish parties in Dukan the day before the take-over of Kirkuk on Saturday 15 October. 21 “Bafel said he had met with Abadi and discussed allowing the golden division (Baghdad’s counter-terrorism forces) into Kirkuk. He said the Republican Guard might take control of some of the sites,” said a senior Kurdish official. “We asked him if he had made an agreement, and he said ‘no, they were just discussion points’. We said if he had agreed to that, we would have to adjust our force posture accordingly.“ They lied. It was a historical betrayal. The deal was done while condolences were received for Talabani, first in Sulaimaniya, and then in Baghdad. The second meeting is where Abadi was also informed.” 22

The New Yorker reported on the day Kirkuk fell: “…the main militia that moved into Kurdish territory this morning was Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which battled American soldiers in Iraq during the war there. Its leader, Qais Khazali, is believed to be the principal planner of the kidnapping and execution of four American soldiers in Karbala in 2007. The military operation in the Kurdish region is very much a joint Iraq-Iran project; the flag of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq was planted at one of the Kurdish bases that was taken over. Also accompanying Iraqi forces in Kirkuk was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander convicted of bombing the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1983; he has been designated a terrorist by the United States government…” 23

After the fall of Kirkuk, as early as 18 October, Quds Forces under Qasim Soleimani also reportedly opened bases and HQs there. Bas News reported that Shakhawan Abdullah, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security informed them “Iran’s Quds Force members are embedded with the forces who entered Kirkuk, wearing Hashd al-Shaabi and Iraqi Federal Police uniforms. 24

On December 27, 2017, senior PUK official and commander of the 70 Peshmerga forces, Jaffar Sheikh Mustafa, opined that the reason behind the operation in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas “was never the outcome of the referendum held in Kurdistan, but indeed the invasion was an agreement between the Iraqi government and a few traitors within the PUK political party…if the late PUK leader Jalal Talabani was alive, he would definitely punish this group of “traitors” within the party. 25

The fall out

On 2 November, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq confirmed that over 183,000 civilians have been displaced since the Oct 16 attack on Kirkuk and other disputed areas, with 79,000 people having fled the city of Kirkuk. In Shingal, the head of the mayoral council announced that the medical staff of its sole hospital had fled, because of the increasing PMF presence, leaving the area without health services. 26

Kurdistan 24 stated on 4 November: “The raising of Shiite banners and pictures of Shiite religious figures is one element in a campaign of intimidation, carried out by Shiite militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) or Hashd a-Shaabi…Regular Iraqi forces are increasingly involved in the abuses, alongside the PMF, have imposed their own religious strictures. Alcohol has been banned in Iraq and is now prohibited in Kirkuk…Two days after the assault on Kirkuk, a PMF militia burned down a woman’s fitness center, ostensibly because it contained a swimming pool.” 27

On 9 November, Jennifer Cafarella of the ISW observed in a research paper headed ‘Iran’s Role in the Kirkuk Operation in Iraq’: Iran provided decisive military support to compel Iraqi Kurds to surrender in Kirkuk, Iraq, on October 16, 2017. Military forces from three major Iranian proxies participated in the operation: Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, and the Badr Organization. Iran did not attempt to outshine Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in public. Iran instead allowed Abadi to take credit, while quietly positioning its proxies to influence Kirkuk in the future. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) conducted a rigorous study of social media activity and other reporting of troop movements in Iraq in order to assess the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries…” 28

Exactly one year before in November 2016, Iraq’s Parliament had passed a law that considers the PMU part of the regular armed forces under the authority of the commander in chief. 29

The militia seemingly have no intention to disband and have not only been accorded Baghdad’s formal recognition but have also secured their own funding and bases. “Iraq’s internal affairs are run by constitutional institutions,” said government spokesman, Saad Hadithi, adding that the PMU has “become part of the Iraqi security system.” 30

On 6 December, French President, Emmanuel Macron, voiced his concern urging that the militia be disbanded as victory over IS was deemed to have been secured in the areas it had controlled since the summer of 2014. The response from Baghdad and from spokesmen for the Shi’a militia themselves was highly critical. 31 They urged Macron and the West not to meddle in Iraq’s internal affairs.

IS fighters have ambushed and killed several Hashd al-Shaabi militias near Hawija this month.32 Iraqi media reported that dozens had been abducted in Sa’duniyah sub-district. 33

2018 May Elections: a “military Coup” says Sunni Alliance MP

Going beyond the battle position, some 62 Shi’a militia members are reportedly entering civil politics fielding candidates in the May elections34. The move is clearly aimed at centralising power further in their hands on a political basis in addition to the armed units, just as Hezbollah has succeeded in doing in Lebanon. According to the Baghdad Post, “Hadi al-Amiri, Aws al-Khafaji, Qais al-Kazali, Ahmed al-Assadi, Akram al-Kaabi and Hisham al-Mossawi are among the leaders who have been permitted to stand for the upcoming elections.” 35

On 2 January 2018, Iraqi media reported that Raad al-Dahlaki, National Alliance MP (the “United” al-Mutahidoon) was arguing that “holding the elections under the current circumstances will represent a military coup against the political process by allowing the ascension of military commanders to assume the government’s political helm. According to Dahlaki, the Iraqi government has not fulfilled the requirements for holding fair elections including “the return of refugees and limiting weapons to the state’s hands.” 36

On 15 January, Middle East Eye observed: “The main groups representing the Hashd have decided to stand jointly under the banner of the Fatah coalition. One Fatah leader, Falah al-Khazali, spoke out against running alongside Abadi’s list after accusing it of including “groups involved in corruption”.

Others chose to withdraw from the alliance with Abadi because they believe they will secure more seats by running on a smaller list. 37

For its part, the KDP has said it will boycott the forthcoming elections in Kirkuk. Bas News reported: “KDP considers Kirkuk and the surrounding Kurdish areas invaded, therefore the high officials in the administration of the party decided to boycott the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections in Kirkuk. “The Iraqi constitution is totally violated” said Kawe Ahmed, the head of KDP’s third branch in Kirkuk. 38 .

ISW summarised: “Iran’s proxies will capitalize politically and militarily on their role in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBS). The battlefield circulations of major proxy leaders around Kirkuk bolstered their public image ahead of Iraq’s elections scheduled for early 2018. Their subordinates may compete in local Kirkuk politics. Their forces will likely control or contest Iraqi government control of Kirkuk’s military infrastructure and oil installations… (Abadi’s) appointments enable Iran’s proxies to consolidate militarily in Kirkuk and across the DIBS. 39

Corruption remains another key factor in Iraq’s overall instability. Political office has readily lead to nepotism and insider opportunities to divert the profits of the energy, construction, haulage, shipping and security sectors into private off shore bank accounts and corporate accounts hidden by shell companies. 40

Many side-lined as well as corrupt politicians may loose their seats in the May elections if voters have their say. Al-Abadi’s premiership is not secure. Iran may decide that he has also served out his usefulness. Former Badr Organisation General Secretary, Hadi al-Amiri, could plausibly take the field having stepped down from military command as legislation required. 41

In January, former US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker had opined: “I tend to see this through the lens of what I assume to be Iran’s grand strategy for the region. You create, fund, organize, and train non-state actors that will follow your direction and not that of those ostensibly running the country.” 43

For his part, Al-Amiri vows to see the last of the Americans in Iraq. 44

1 E.B.Soane, To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise, John Murray, 1912, pp. 120-121
7”a branch of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) responsible for covert warfare beyond Iran’s borders.”
8 Ibid.
15 “Within a day of Iraqi forces taking over Kirkuk, reports noted Baghdad was reaching out to British Petroleum. Numerous articles reported on the search for an agreement that began on October 18. “As soon as the city of Kirkuk fell to the Iraqi government after Peshmerga withdrew and pulled out its forces in mid-October, the UK government asked British Petroleum (BP) to begin work at Kirkuk oilfields which are currently under Baghdad’s control,’ writes Rudaw. Reuters noted on October 28: “expects to sign an initial deal in early September to revive Iraq’s northern Kirkuk oilfield, an industry source said, a move that could affect regional politics because the field straddles the border with the autonomous Kurdish region.” FT notes “The oil ministry said Jabbar al-Luaibi, the minister, had “sent a request for BP to quickly come in to begin studies and restart measures to develop the oilfields in Kirkuk province”. Source:
16 ttps://
18, p.7
19 Ibid. p.9
21 Soon after the death of Jalal Talabani on 3 October 2017.

Sheri Laizer, a Middle East and North African expert specialist and well known commentator on the Kurdish issue. She is a senior contributing writer for More about Sheri Laizer see below.

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