Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar Al-Abadi Saturday night, Oct. 14, gave the Kurdish Peshmerga an ultimatum to surrender the positions in the Kirkuk oil region they have held since pushing ISIS out three years ago, and also cancel the Kurdish Republic’s Sept. 25 independence vote.
The Kurdish troops were given until early Sunday to comply with those demands, in the face of heavily armed troops of the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Force (PMU), an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, massed around Kirkuk.
DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources reveal exclusively that the Iraqi prime minister issued this ultimatum under heavy pressure from al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He placed the PMU at Abadi’s disposal and any arms he might need for an operation to fight the Kurds, should they defy the ultimatum. They stand against thousands of The KRG fighters deployed around Kirkuk.
Over the weekend, both sides beefed up their military strength in and around Iraq’s northern oil city. Iraq has deployed to Kirkuk the PMU as well as special operations units to face a Peshmerga force of 9,000 fighters.
Just hours before the deadline, a Peshmerga commander on the western front said Kurdish fighters had “taken all the necessary measures” and were “ready for a confrontation” if necessary.
American forces, who maintain a small military team in Kirkuk for carrying messages between the opposing camps, proposed a number of compromises, but they were all rejected by the Iraqi prime minister.
Washington also notified Baghdad that the US would not tolerate military aggression against Irbil, capital of the KRG, Dohuk or Sulaymaniyah, or military incursions of Kirkuk, only a small party of civilian officials.
It is not clear whether Abadi will heed Washington’s directives. However, DEBKAfile’s sources stress that President Donald Trump’s speech Friday night, laying out a new, tough strategy for Iran and its Revolutionary Guards, lent a potential military clash over Kirkuk a new perspective beyond a local conflict.
After Trump declared that the entire IRGC was guilty of terrorism, including all its agents and proxies – the Iraqi PMU militia would lay itself open to the definition of terrorists for attacking Kurdish forces, who are America’s frontline military ally in the war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
All eyes in the Middle East are watching to see how the Trump administration responds to such an attack if it takes place. Its non-response would be interpreted by Tehran as a license for its IRPG to keep going.