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Iraqi Forces Now Control Kurdish City Of Kirkuk And Its Oil Fields


It only took one day of battle, and now Iraqi military forces have seized control of the city of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters. It's a major loss for the Kurdish people, who voted overwhelmingly for independence just a few weeks ago, and for Kurdish forces, who have controlled the region for three years. With me now is Vahal Ali. He is the spokesperson for the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq. He joins us from Erbil. Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

VAHAL ALI: Thank you, ma'am.

MARTIN: What happens now? Do - do you keep fighting to take the city of Kirkuk back into Kurdish control?

ALI: Well, before - before we talk about what happens now, let's talk about what happened two days ago. And it seems that that is either being deliberately ignored or people are not paying as much attention to it as - as they should. And when I say the people I mean the international community. The Popular Mobilization Forces, the PMF, was supported directly by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was supported directly - and with the presence of General Qasem Soleimani. One day he came into Kirkuk. That's - that's - that's what happened in Kirkuk. And it's not stopping in Kirkuk. They want to go back to the borders of 2014, meaning they want to go back to pre-ISIS borders of - of Iraq without any consultation with - with us. This is an agreement that they - they reached on their own. And this is a violation of an - of a previous agreement that we had with Baghdad and with the U.S.-led coalition that the Iraqis have to move out of those liberated areas after the operations against ISIS.

MARTIN: So I - hear - I hear what you're saying, that this was about larger political aims and that the Iraqi security forces were backed by Shiite militias sponsored by Iran. So this is - this is a complicated morass of different political interests. But - but nevertheless now you are in a position where Kurdish leaders have to make a decision. Do you acquiesce to - to what has transpired, or do you fight back?

ALI: Ma'am, here is the thing. We need to - we need to first and foremost make sense of - of this international negligence, to - to - to this trauma, to this - this very big event that took place. Now, this is the same Iraq on - on which you had - you have spent billions, maybe - maybe more, of dollars on and that you had 5,000 lives for, and - and you just keep gifting it.

MARTIN: You're saying you want the Americans involved here. I mean, the U.S. has always been a buffer that has kept Iraqi and Kurdish forces from each other's throats in Kirkuk. Are you saying you want American forces to come back in in this moment?

ALI: I'm not saying that. I'm not saying U.S. forces to be present here, but U.S. direct involvement in this and - and realizing that what took place is not just the PMF, the - the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Hashd al-Sha'abi, this was directly supported by Iran with the presence of General Qasem Soleimani, who I - I think has absolutely no right to be in Iraq to - to begin with. So how is it that this is just not being addressed, and instead, you're asking us, OK, what do you do next? We don't know what - what we're going to do next, ma'am.

MARTIN: You say it's not on the Kurds to make a - a decision about the next move. It's up to the international community.

ALI: Well, it - it became up to the international community when outside forces were involved in this and are involved in this. This is an ongoing operation. They're not stopping in Kirkuk. Last night, for your information, they - they took the city of Shangat (ph).

MARTIN: Three weeks ago the Kurds held a vote to break away from the rest of Iraq. Now you've lost control of Kirkuk. Turkey and Iran have threatened to retaliate, as you point out, Shiite militias were part of this effort. What did you gain from the independence vote?

ALI: Well, ma'am, this is a plot against that - I - we're being penalized because of that referendum vote. Because that referendum vote seems to have to - to have been interpreted by - by - the neighbors as - as a crime, as something that we should not have done as - and the international community, unfortunately, is silent on - on this. The referendum vote was to express the will of the people of the Kurdistan region.

MARTIN: We're going to have to close it there. Vahal Ali, spokesperson for the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.