Less than twenty-four hours after the clashes began between Iraqi government forces and Kurdish troops in the city of Kirkuk, the US has begun to weigh in heavily in an attempt to bring order to the situation.
This confirms the earlier assessments posed right after the shooting began in the northern Iraq city.
The reactions to the fighting by American officials have taken different forms, but all are basically delivering the same message: settle down and let's keep focused on the common enemy.
In a statement yesterday morning, coalition officials delivered a message acknowledging the battles in Kirkuk but strangely tried to undermine their significance. “We are aware of a limited [sic] exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness Oct. 16.” The limited exchange was, of course, referring to a multi-pronged assault by Iraqi forces which took over an oil field, an airport, and dislodged Kurdish fighters from their positions throughout the city. The statement continued: “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”
The idea of defining these clashes as unintentional and a mere accident is absurd. But clearly, officials are deliberately trying to play down the events in an attempt the quiet things down.
Policymakers in Washington also had to comment on the clashes in Kirkuk. Senator John McCain told media sources the United States warns Iraq of “severe consequences” if American weapons are used against Kurds. “The United States provided equipment and training to the Government of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats—not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States.”
Finally, a statement from Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces really drives home the American stance on Iraqi-Kurdish relations: "We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”
All of these reactions from both military and policy officials highlight the American interests when it comes to Kurds and Iraqis: the overriding concern is to defeat Islamic extremism in Iraq in the hopes of bringing long-term stability back to the country. The best way for that to happen is if all the parties involved continue to get along.
Furthermore, the Kurds are a “longstanding” ally of the United States in the region and have proven invaluable in the very fight against ISIS which is very much the main agenda. Indeed it was the Kurdish Peshmerga who eliminated ISIS from Kirkuk over three years ago in 2014 shortly after the terror group first took control of the city in June of that year. This goes to show that despite the misgivings of American officials regarding the Kurds’ recent independence referendum, the incident that sparked the Kirkuk clashes, the United States will not tolerate its military hardware being turned against a partner in the region.
The aftermath of this incident and subsequent forced cool down by the US will be important for the future of Iraqi-Kurdish cooperation. While Iraq will likely heed American orders to cease and desist, it is yet to be seen if a working relationship can be rekindled with their Kurdish “brothers-in-arms” in the fight against the Islamic State.