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.
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.
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.
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:
- Because of the front with ISIS, the Iraqi government might not be prepared to fully deploy its military power against the Kurdish
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.