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Iraqi Forces Invade Kurdish City Of Kirkuk After Independence Vote


Two of America's allies in the fight against the Islamic State are now fighting each other. Iraq State TV reported early this morning that Iraqi security forces had started to seize the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. This is all happening in the wake of a referendum that Kurdish leaders held on independence last month. Philip Issa joins us now. He's a reporter for the Associated Press in Baghdad. Philip, what can you tell us about what is happening in Kirkuk right now? What's the status of the Iraqi offensive?

PHILIP ISSA: Yeah, hi. The status is that Iraqi forces, federal forces, seem to be moving quite quickly into areas that used to be held by Kurdish forces in both Kirkuk City and the region around it. The region around it is important because there is a lot of oil wells, there's an important airport and - and a military base, as well. So there's been some clashes between the two sides. Some of it's been actually quite violent. But by and large, the Iraqi army is - and supporting militias are moving forward with haste.

MARTIN: What is the goal? I mean, what is the Iraqi government and, by extension, the security forces, what are they trying to accomplish? Do they want to take Kirkuk?

ISSA: Yeah. They want to basically restore federal authority to - to Kirkuk City and the region. They see it as a return to the status - the - the status quo before 2014, before the Islamic State group came into northern Iraq. What happened at that time was that when the Islamic State group sort of appeared and started their - their advance, their insurgency, Iraqi government forces melted away. And Kurdish forces, who have their own autonomous region nearby, they came into Kirkuk and defended the city. And they've been staying in Kirkuk since 2014.

Baghdad has said, you know, we want this back, we want this back. But what really ignited the whole conflict now was the referendum in - in the Kurdish region, in the autonomous Kurdish region in September. And so I guess they've just decided that they want to put a lid on this - on the crisis, and they decided to - to move in and reclaim what they say is rightfully theirs, according to - according to the legal agreements between - between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities.

MARTIN: I know this is a complicated question, but why doesn't Iraq just let the Kurds go? This has been a generations-long conflict with - with Kurds wanting their own independent state. Is it just about the oil, or is there something bigger at play?

ISSA: No. I think it's - it's bigger than that. There's ideological factors. There's the idea that Iraq should be a unified nation state, maybe an predominantly Arab one. There's - you know, it kind of goes into what you see, what your vision is for Iraq as a sort of a unified state or - or a confederacy. They - there's also pressure from the neighbors. I mean, Turkey and Iran also do not want the Kurdish region to acquire independence because they have their own Kurdish insurgencies that they obviously would not like to - they wouldn't like to have be independent.

MARTIN: How does this end? Presumably the Peshmerga are fighting back.

ISSA: They are, but less forcefully than might be expected. It - I mean, prime minister made it clear that he wants to share administration of Kirkuk City itself. And anyways, that's not really where the oil and the money is. The money in the oil is in the outskirts.


ISSA: And the Iraqi forces are moving. So we'll see how that resolves itself.

MARTIN: Philip Issa. He's a reporter with the AP in Baghdad. Thanks so much.

ISSA: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.