Why did almost all Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga withdraw from the city of Kirkuk in the face of the advance of Iraqi forces and allied Shia militia earlier this week?
The answer lies in large part in the visit of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Forces, just before a showdown in the oil-rich, disputed area.
Soleimani visited Kurdistan on at least three occasions this month to warn Kurdish leaders to withdraw or face an onslaught including Iranian-backed fighters, said “Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings”.
Soleimani met leaders from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main political parties, in the city of Sulaymaniyah last weekend, the day before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered an offensive.
“Abadi has all the regional powers and the West behind him and nothing will stop him from forcing you to return back to the mountains if he decides so,” Soleimani said, according to a PUK lawmaker.
The Iranian general reminded his audience of Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s attack crushing a Kurdish rebellion in 1991, when almost the entire Kurdish population fled into mountains in northern Iraq.
Peshmerga linked to the PUK withdrew from Kirkuk on Monday before Iraqi forces and Iranian-led militias entered, although there were clashes with some peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and fighting is ongoing in some areas outside the city.
The central Iraqi government reacted after Iraqi Kurdistan held a September 25 referendum, including Kirkuk, in which 93% of voters backed independence in a 72% turnout. The PUK has accused the KDP of putting Kurdistan at risk of military attack and isolation in its push for the ballot.
Iran: “There Will Be Conflict”
Soleimani told Kurdish leaders before the referendum that the vote was risky.
“The Iranians were very clear. They have been very clear that there will be conflict, that these territories will be lost,” said one prominent Iraqi Kurdish politician who met the general.
On October 6, Soleimani used the funeral of PUK leader Jalal Talabani to press his message that the peshmerga must leave Kirkuk. In exchange, he said Tehran would protect Iraqi Kurdish interests, according to “a senior Iranian diplomat in Iraq and an official in Iran close to [the] Supreme Leader”.
A few days later, Soleimani met Talabani’s son Bafel and said “Abadi should be taken very seriously. You should understand this”, according to a Kurdish official.
A “source close to” Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, the head of the KDP, claimed:
The Talabani clan were behind the offensive on Kirkuk. They asked Qassem [Soleimani] for help and his troops were there on the ground. It is becoming clear that Iran is directing the operations to destroy the KDP.
The PUK denied the allegation, with Bafel Talabani blaming the KDP for not reaching a deal with the Iraqi government over a base near Kirkuk: “Unfortunately we reacted too slowly. And we find ourselves where we are today.”