The Battle for Kirkuk: What is Happening?

Kirkuk is a highly polemic city for the Iraqi-Kurdish relations, as far as the local population is divided among the central government and the Kurdish what is linked to the ethnical composition of the city.

The real population of Kirkuk is difficult to know due to the war against ISIS, the tensions and the people who abandoned the city, but on 2011 it was close to one million habitants what makes it an important piece in the local politics.

The Kurdish who held against ISIS on 2014 while the Iraqi Army runaway took advantage of the situation and occupied the city until now, however after the battle of Mosul along with the referendum of self-determination held by Kurdish the dormant conflict has get up.

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Peshmergas have a significative military power to confront Baghdag however it is scarce and expensive in term of resources and so it is much more difficult for them to replace losses that is why they are reluctant to risk their most valued units unleast there is no other option.

On the night of 16 October 2017 and after gathering troops from the Shia militias, the Police and the Army Iraq has launched an offensive spear headed by the 9th Armoured Division equipped w ith the best vehicles of the army: M1A1 Abrams and M-109A5 SPHs.

The United States who has been caught between two fires has forbidden Iraq to use its Air Force against the Kurdish, this is a typical restriction of armament imposed by the US to allied countries, to not use it against certain partners that in this case are the Kurdish. This mainly means that the F-16s and very likely other aircraft bought by US like the Super Tucano  light attack aircraft are not going to be used what blocks an important piece of the Iraqi military advantage, however, we do not know what happens to other military equipment like the advanced Russian Mi-28NE or Mi-35 attack helicopters.

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United States military support comes at a price. In the image a Iraqi F-16 that in theory they will not use against the Kurdish.

When the Iraqi operation began the fractures appeared among the Kurdish factions, because one of the most important Peshmerga groups, PUK has decided not to fight against “their Iraqi brothers” what has led to further fighting and growing tensions between the Kurdish forces.

Some politicians have successfully called the Kurdish population to mobilization against Iraqi Army, however other minorities of the city have answered with clashes inside the city in what can fastly disembogue in a civil conflict with an ethnic cleansing threat.

Kurdistan is much bigger than Kirkuk, and even the autonomous region did not originally include Kirkuk so if the war escalates this is just a small part of a whole front much important for the Kurdish, that must be taken in to account because Kurdish resources are scarce in comparison with Iraq and if in some moment they need to maintain a full-scale war they will need all of their military forces, we must never forget it in order to understand some of the Kurdish cupola decisions.

From a military point of view, the Iraqi offensive looks as a pincer movement aiming at crush the weak Kurdish positions on the roads and surround Kirkuk by taking the northern roads, because once isolated the fight will be much easier for the Iraqi forces. The other option is a left hook with the same objectives.

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Iraqi Army has launched its offensive quite fastly at both flanks of the city with another objective that is to take key government installations like military bases or airports, all of them important to take the control of the town and to support the military deployment.

It must be noted that at the moment the Iraqi offensive just includes Kirkuk, and no other point of the Iraq-Kurdistan border, this can mean two things:

  1. Because of the front with ISIS, the Iraqi government might not be prepared to fully deploy its military power against the Kurdish
  2. They want to make a show of force by taking Kirkuk and so boosting the Iraqi position in future negotiations.

As far as we know the Kurdish have not reacted in force to the Iraqi attack, this can be due to three reasons:

  1. They do not want to risk all of their irrecoverable military equipment and elite military units that can be needed to have a sustainable position in future negotiations.
  2. As far as Kirkuk do not represent the hearthland of the Kurdish region nor the source of power for the Kurdish politicians they do not expect to burn their energies in such location.
  3. The Iraqi offensive has overwhelmed them and they have not been able to move their reserves and counterattack in time against the lightning Iraqi advance who has gained around 21 Kmtrs in less than 12 hours of fighting on the left flank.

However Kurdish have militias and maybe some light infantry units inside Kirkuk, so if they are willing to really inflict casualties to the Iraqi Army they can trigger an urban warfare scenario that can cause attrition among Iraqi forces, however the lack of preparations and a bulk of force composed of low quality militias make the urban warfare option less effective than in other battles where the cities had been previously fortified.

 

 

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Military balance: Iraqi Army vs Peshmergas

Introduction

Due to the recent self-determination referendum done with the blessing of Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous government has threatened to declare independence, affecting to even disputed areas out of the administrative Kurdish region, so our objective with this analysis is to elucidate if in case of war with the Iraqi State the Kurdish really have a chance to win.

Analysis

The Iraqi answer to the referendum was fast and an aerial and economical blockade was imposed over the Kurdish region along with the support of Iran and Turkey who also see the Kurdish separatism as a threat.

Military actions have also taken place: Turkey and Iran have done extensive military drills close to the borders with the Iraqi Kurdistan, but also Iraq and the own Kurdish are mobilizing their forces. Let’s have a closer look at them.

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Iraqis are moving important units close to Kirkuk in preparation for a possible conflict. They are even deploying their best tube-artillery SPH, the M-109A5, like the one on the image.

Both Iraqi and Kurdish forces are heavily influxed by corruption and a lack of professionalism that affects their respective military forces however both account with certain decent forces like the Golden Division or some small armored units on the side of Iraq and certain motorized light infantry units on the side of the Peshmerga.

In one hand the Kurdish forces are divided into three different political commands, the Ministry of Peshmergas the KDP and the PUK, in theory, all of them have gathered around 200.000 soldiers, however the combat-value of most of the units is highly questionable due to the lack of training and equipment, in the other hand Iraqi Army has a strength of 81.000 soldiers as of January 2016, but if we plus the other State forces as the Federal Police that even has its own heavy artillery units, and the special forces we reach the 147.000 soldiers, finally if we also take in to account the PMU and certain Shia militias they gather around 180.000 soldiers.

So if we put the focus just in the numbers as of 2017-2018 period we can say that in theory, the result is a draw, but it is true that if the conflict goes on Iraq can recruit much more troops, especially if they are helped by foreign states as Iran or Turkey.

From the point of view of the experience both armies have an important number of veterans from the fight against ISIS, however, it is true that the Iraqis have lost more soldiers during the last steps of the fighting against ISIS in Mosul, Al-Anbar and Niniveh.

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The casualties of the Iraqi Army during the battle of Mosul have been high. On the image an ambush perpetrated by ISIS on December 2016.

Before continue it must be noted that at least in the middle term it is not going to be a moment when the Iraqi Army is so weak because of the casualties of veteran soldiers suffered against ISIS, probably that is why the Kurdish leaders decided to do the referendum that can be seen as the last chance for independence of the Kurdish.

One important difference between both forces is the equipment where Iraq has an obvious advantage because of the Air Force, the artillery, the heavy equipment and the foreign supply of spare parts and ammunition for all of those systems while Kurdish can mainly trust in light infantry tactics, a combination of obstacles, mines/IEDs, mortars and machine guns. It must be noted that Peshmerga also account with certain heavy equipment like more than two hundred T-54, T-55, Type 69 and T-62 tanks and even a small amount of the more modern T-72Ms, while this force is certainly inferior to the best-armoured forces of Iraq composed of T-72Ms, T-72Ss and M1A1 Abrams, it must be noted that if well commanded and with the required maintenance and logistic support the Kurdish still have an important armoured force able to represent a main threat to the Iraqi army.

The Peshmerga can field a wide variety of APCs, IFVs and towed artillery that again are inferior to their Iraqi counterparts but never the less well managed they can represent a big threat. The other face of the significative Peshmerga heavy equipment is the maintenance problem: Five types of tanks, more than seven types of armored vehicles, and more than ten types of artillery guns. Maintain this vast fleet of vehicles with so different needs is a challenge too big for a semi-professional army.

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On this image we can see from the front to the background: German vehicle Dingo even with the iron cross of the Bundeswehr with an MG-3 MMG that uses 7,62 x 51 mm cartridge, behind it a Iraqi designed MRAP with a Chinese W-85 HMG that uses a 12,7 x 108 mm cartridge, and behind them an American Humvee.

The problem of the heavy vehicles is even extensible to the lighter material. The Peshmerga were filling their depots with old material looted from abandoned warehouses of the Iraqi Army after its dissolution on 2003, also since that year the Kurdish became the best ally of the U.S and so they got Northamerican material, finally when ISIS appeared the International Community concentrated its efforts in to help the Kurdish and so new weapons flooded the Peshmergas. The results? Now the Peshmergas have weapons from China, Germany, Russia, USA, English, Czech or Romanian among others, think of the massive problems of interchangeability because of a lot of calibers, sights, and trainings needed.

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Iraq has an excellent fleet of aircraft including some state-of-the-art helicopters, like this Mi-28NE recently bought by Iraq to Russia.

While the material favors the Iraqis the terrain favors the defenders. Kurdistan is a mountainous region ideal for defense because of its chaotic and complex terrain with a lot of opportunities to hide from the enemy air force, prepare ambushes…

Carl Von Clausewitz, one of the main philosophers about the war stated that defense is generally speaking better than attack, and that is also seen in the modern armies manuals, that in the case of light infantry tactics usually recommend numerical superiority of 1:3 in favor of the attacker to have a good guarantee of success without prohibitive losses.

If we take everything into account we can reach the next conclusions about the key elements that will decide the battle:

  • Level of morale and resilience to suffer casualties: If conflict evolves into a stalemate the resilience and the high morale can be of great impact on the result of the war.
  • Level of mobilization of both forces: This is especially important for Kurdish as far as they do not have so much population to recruit and so they need to stress their ratios of recruitment and mobilization.
  • Level of professionalism: A good command at the tactical level will be key especially for the Kurdish who face an obvious material disadvantage that needs to be compensated by more skilled and creative commanders at the tactical level.
  • Level of logistics: This will be key to mobilize both forces at their maximum strength, and particularly for the Iraqis, it will be very important to maintain in well status their heavy equipment to take advantage of their material superiority that otherwise will be unuseful.
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Training, diligence and professionalism are going to be key factors in a possible conflict. In the image members of the Iraqi Army being trained by the Spanish Legion on 2015 / Diario Sur

View of future

If finally war erupts  just between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army the last ones have most of the chances of win, mainly because even under a good defense prepared by the Kurdish the loses in men and equipment that Iraq can asume are enormous while the Kurdish have very limited supplies and men and so just a brilliant defensive plan along a fully mobilized society can lead to a Kurdish victory, still it is also true that the victory for Iraq can cause them a huge blow in money, lives and degradation for their armed forces.

Finally if Kurdish want to have a chance they would have to fight another hybrid warfare but this time closer to a conventional one than the battles fought against ISIS and under a huge firepower inferiority.

Strategic Situation Table

*All elements represented in this table represent just a personal view.

Key factors Situation
International support (Real support from outside Iraq) Totally in favor of Iraq
Global power (All economical, social, military, technical Powers…) Totally in favor of Iraq
Recruitment (Number of potential soldiers available for recruitment) Clearly in favor of Iraq
Morale (Willing to fight) Slight advantage of Kurdish
Professionalism (Level of training and diligence) Unknown
Logistics (Capacity to maintain in well status the men and material) Clearly in favor of Iraq
Firepower (Number and type of weapons available) Clearly in favor of Iraq
Equipment Quality Totally in favor of Iraq
Equipment Availability Clearly in favor of Iraq
Terrain Tottaly in favor of Kurdish