The U.S. nearly brokered a deal last weekend to avert the current crisis over the disputed city of Kirkuk, where Iraqi forces and some Iranian-supported militias displaced Kurdish fighters this week.
It has been widely reported that Iraqi Security Forces entered Kirkuk and a nearby military base and oil fields because of a deal made by the relatives of the late Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi president and Kurdish revolutionary who died this month. That deal, forged by Talabani’s widow, Hero, and others in her family with the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, has uprooted the unity Kurds have enjoyed since the 2003 war to liberate Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government president, Massoud Barzani, has called Hero a traitor, while Kurds loyal to Talabani have accused Barzani of bringing another calamity upon their people.
But this is only part of the story. According to U.S., Kurdish, Iraqi and European officials familiar with the diplomacy, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, Brett McGurk, came very close to a face-saving compromise between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, over the weekend before Abadi ordered his forces into Kirkuk.
These officials tell me that the McGurk compromise would wrest Kurdish control of a military air base outside of Kirkuk known as K-1, where many U.S. special operators are currently stationed. Between 2014 and this week, the K-1 base was secured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Like the Kurdish fighters stationed in Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields, they took up these positions after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State surge in 2014.
The U.S. compromise would have offered a joint administration of the military base for both Kurds and Iraqis with a U.S. general (agreed to by both sides) to settle disputes. The theory was this would have allowed Abadi to save face after last month’s Kurdish independence referendum while avoiding the trauma of Iraqi forces taking over a multi-ethnic city that Kurds have long considered their Jerusalem.
But much like the last-minute effort to persuade Kurdish leaders to back off the independence referendum, the U.S. compromise did not convince Abadi to avert the military operation into Kirkuk. According to one Western diplomat who was working on the deal, McGurk asked Abadi for another day on Sunday, only a few hours before he ordered his forces into Kirkuk. But Abadi did not oblige.
The Kirkuk crisis began to boil as early as Oct. 13. That is when Abadi gave Kurdish leaders a 48-hour deadline to remove their forces from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. This prompted members of both major Kurdish parties — including relatives of Talabani — to frantically call U.S. and British officials to put pressure on Abadi to back off.
By Saturday, the Kurdish leadership recognized it had a major problem. Both the Talabani faction and the faction loyal to the current Kurdistan Regional Government president met at Lake Dokan for a summit to discuss Abadi’s warning and the potential compromise to stave off the Iraqi military operation. The location was important because it is a midway point between the regional capital of Irbil, which is traditionally loyal to the Barzani family, and Sulaymaniyah, the seat of power for the Talabani faction.
But the Kurdish summit did not reach consensus on the U.S. compromise. McGurk pleaded for more time with Abadi. But time ran out. By Sunday, Talabani’s widow traveled back to Sulaymaniyah with most of her clan. Later in that day they cut the deal with Iran’s Soleimani. The rest is history.
Now the Kurds have lost their Jerusalem, as Iraqi forces approach what Kurds voted last month should eventually be their independent state’s national borders.