Iraqi forces in Kirkuk fuels sectarian divide

kurd Iraqi forces in Kirkuk fuels sectarian divide

Iraqi forces clashed with Kurdish fighters near the disputed city of Kirkuk, seizing a key military base and other territory. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

By Matt Saintsing

Two armed forces, trained and equipped by the US, are pitted against each other in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The once Kurdish-controlled Baba Gurgur oil field, K-1 military base, and the airport were seized by Iraqi troops Monday.

This escalation is the latest in an intensifying divide between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region.

The Iraqi military charged into the impugned province with the stated goal of taking back the strategic positions they controlled before the Islamic State pushed them out in 2014. Kurdish forces had since taken them over.

The conflict between Kurdistan and the Iraqi government over oil and land is far from new, but the rift grew even larger last month when Kurds voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for independence from Iraq.

Kirkuk is surrounded by oil fields, and the ethnically and religiously diverse city sits along one of Iraq’s most contentious sectarian fault lines.

At the unseasoned age of 20, I arrived to Kirkuk on my first deployment.

Today, I can’t help but think about a child no older than 12 that approached our vehicles my first trip outside the wire.

“Hello American,” he said. We exchanged names, and he asked me if I was enjoying my time in Kurdistan.

“Isn’t this Iraq?,” I said. To which he responded with “no, this is of course Kurdistan!”

At the time, I didn’t understand the weight of what that meant.

After Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, Kurds returned to Kirkuk in massive numbers, and have since further entrenched their control by repelling ISIS attacks.

ISIS in Iraq has been reduced to its last scraps of land it holds, thanks to the sacrifices of Iraqi government troops and Kurdish forces standing shoulder-to-shoulder shedding blood, a fact that should never been taken for granted.

ISIS may be on the down-swing in terms of territory it controls, but its defeat may reignite old turf wars, or spark new ones.

And the US military is caught in the middle.

“We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities,” said Maj. Gen. Robert White, commanding General of the combined joint forces land component command—operation Inherent resolve, in a statement.

“All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”

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