When the Kurds of Iraq called for independence in a broad referendum at the end of last month, observers began to nervously assess what the consequences might be for Iraqi-Kurdish relations, already a heated conflict on the backdrop of years of territorial and nationalist dispute.
Tensions have finally come to a boil.
Government forces began an assault on Kurdish militia forces, known as Peshmerga, in the northern city of Kirkuk. The multi-ethnic city is home to some 1 million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians. Residents stayed inside amidst reports of sporadic explosions attributed to rocket fire.
Iraqi soldiers have made initial headway. The “multi-pronged" attack, as phrased by Iraqi brass, has taken control of infrastructure such as oil and gas facilities in the city’s south, and pushed the bulk of Kurdish fighters to a perimeter near the airport. The latest reports have indicated that Kurds are still retreating in the face of an Iraqi advance.
Information from the Kurdish side has also been forthcoming. Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, admitted that Iraqi forces have taken several Kurdish positions and caused "lots of casualties" without providing a specific figure.
Kurdish fighters, however, have been unrelenting. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that Peshmerga had destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by the Iraqi government backed militias following the "unprovoked attack" on the city.
Kurdish official sources have also stated that a counter-attack will be forthcoming, aimed at the city’s airport. Although the Kurds have been driven from positions near the airport, the Peshmerga have made clear their intention for retaliation.
Now that bullets have started to fly in reaction to the independence referendum, the long-term implications of the international coalition’s relationship with the Kurds is uncertain, as coalition backed, and more specifically American backed, forces have now begun an all-out assault on the Kurdish people
As far as the US is concerned, it has been against independence from the beginning. Top officials warned of the repercussions of an independence referendum, urged that the vote be pushed off once it was planned, and refused to recognize the vote after the fact. US military officials and policymakers may turn to the Kurds and simply say: “We warned you. You’re on your own.” This would give the Iraqi government the go-ahead to finish off the Kurdish establishment in Iraq. America may even supply the Iraqis and provide them with logistical and other support in the effort. The US would gain from this in that it would be another assertion of Iraq’s non-dependence on America, and a show of taking control of its own sovereignty issues. This is what America has wanted for a long time in Iraq.
On the other hand, such a move would be abandoning an important ally in the region. The Kurds have been an important player in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Recent victories in the Islamic State's capital of Raqqa, and before that in Mosul, were displays of Kurdish cooperation in fights that America has a serious interest in.
A skeptical analysis might suggest that now with the fight against ISIS in the region coming to close, or at least appearing that way, America does not need to maintain a working relationship with the Kurds.
This does not justify the blatant abandonment of a partner the US has worked with for decades. What will probably emerge after this initial clash has run its course is an attempt by American diplomats to negotiate some type of peace, or perhaps a return to the more quiet, albeit tension-ridden status quo. In any case, Iraq now has a new side to the seemingly never-ending conflict in the country.