Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. Among the most experienced commentators on Iraq, he has written four books on the country’s recent history. Cockburn’s latest book is The Age of Jihad.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
In a bold step, the Iraqi military says it has taken control of Kirkuk and its provincial government headquarters. Using heavy artillery, killing at least seven Kurdish soldiers, the Iraqi military announced that it has successfully conquered the area of Kirkuk, which contains important oil wells and commercial districts. On September 25th, the Kurdish Referendum won with resounding majority.
Joining us now to discuss these developments is Patrick Cockburn. He is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent. Among the most experienced commentators on Iraq. He has written four books on the subject. His latest book is “The Age of Jihad.” Patrick, good to have you with us.
P. COCKBURN: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: So, Patrick, earlier today the Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, was denying that Iraqi military, what it has been claiming, a victory in Kirkuk, and the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, ordered the national flag to be hoisted over Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
So, who’s currently in control of Kirkuk?
P. COCKBURN: The Iraqi security force seems to have taken the city. It’s been a pretty astonishing day. This operation began early in the morning. We had expected that the Iraqi army would try to advance but not that it would take Kirkuk city, and the province around it with the big oil fields. So, this is a really, very important moment in the history of Iraq, if not the Middle East because the Kurds have been looking for their independence for a long time. If they were going to get some independence, they would have had to hold Kirkuk and its oil wells, and they’ve lost it and they’ve lost it pretty quickly.
What’s also pretty astonishing is, there were thousands of Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga in Kirkuk, and they don’t seem to have fought. There seem to have been, I think you said, seven killed. The question is, why didn’t they fight, and why was the Iraqi victory so quick?
SHARMINI PERIES: That is the question, then. Why did they not fight back?
P. COCKBURN: Well, I think the reason is that the Kurdish leadership was divided. They always were divided. In eastern Kurdistan, you have a party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and founded by someone called Jalal Talabani. In western Kurdistan, you have President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party. In the ’90s, they fought a civil war against each other. They’ve always been rivals. They always sort of talked about uniting, but they had their own armies, their own intelligence services, pretty well their own economies.
One of the parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, seems to have reached some accommodation with Baghdad that it wasn’t going to fight the Iraqi troops coming in, so the resistance collapsed pretty quickly, but this is really pretty surprising, because people thought that if the Iraqi army did try to advance, then the Kurds would fight back very strongly.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. The fact that Turkey, Iran, of course, Baghdad, have all issued clear threats against a Kurdish independence movement, certainly it’s not welcomed in the region. So, what’s next for the Kurdish, because it seems like they’re not fighting back, and that they might concede a victory here.
P. COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, nothing good for the Kurds. President Balzani held this referendum in September. He was warned not to do it, by pretty well everybody, actually, including people who don’t like each other, like the United States, Iran, Turkey, the central government in Baghdad, pretty well everybody else. The only people in favor of it were Israel and Saudi Arabia.
This alienated the Kurds’ allies, and it really enraged Baghdad, because this referendum took place in disputed territories, including Kirkuk. So, this was really a claim by the Kurds for permanent occupation of the oilfields and the Kurds have clearly miscalculated. I’ve talked to various Kurdish leaders about that today. Clearly miscalculated the reaction to this referendum, and Iran, Turkey, the Baghdad government got together, they’re closing the borders, and this raised the issue of Kirkuk.
The Iraqi army won a pretty significant victory against the Islamic state, against ISIS in July, when it finally captured Mosul after a nine-month siege, so its morale was pretty high, and it’s been pretty amazing that Balzani and the Kurds should have chosen this moment for a confrontation with Baghdad. It wasn’t just amazing, it was a disastrous decision and one that the Kurdish spectrum media was telling me today that he thought that this was one of the classic miscalculations of the Iraqi history. He cited Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 being another example of this, and it certainly has had a disastrous consequence.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, the Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked and if its neighbors are not in support of its independence, definitely it could be stifled in terms of its economic activity, and therefore stifling an ability to govern. Did that have anything to do with the Kurds standing down?
P. COCKBURN: Not yet, but it’s a good point. This is what’s going to happen next, I think, because the Turkish government announced today that it was handing over control of probably the most important border crossing into Kurdistan, which is from Turkey. Kurdistan has Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, Syria to the west, and the rest of Iraq to the south. Now, a lot of the traffic comes over the bridge from Turkey, and the Turkish say they’re handing over control on these border areas to Iraqi government officials.
The Kurdish area, the Kurdish enclave, which has a population of around five million, will be completely cut off. It’s entirely landlocked, and it’s entirely surrounded by states that are hostile to it, and cooperating against the Kurds.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and you said that Saudi Arabia and Israel were perhaps one of the only two nations that actually supported an independence movement in Kurdistan. Why is that so?
P. COCKBURN: Well, the Israelis have always supported it, I think, partly, because it meant the Kurds, who are not Arabs, wouldn’t be a so disruptive element in the Middle East, maybe that was, maybe they thought that was in Israel’s interest. Saudi Arabia, because they’re a big Sunni state, the Iraqis are Shia, they don’t particularly want to see Iraq becoming a stronger state. But everybody else in the region, and internationally, was against this referendum.
SHARMINI PERIES: Patrick, as you have said, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Iraqi troops in the past, especially against ISIS earlier this year, in the city of Mosul. Now, the Iraqi army is attacking the Peshmerga positions, and have conquered the area. Explain these developments and what happened, and what will become of this relationship.
P. COCKBURN: Well, I think what’s really changed, and what’s important, is the balance of power is different. 2014, the Iraqi army was defeated by ISIS. It lost the great city of Mosul. So, it was very much on the back foot. The Kurds, the Peshmerga, also got defeated by ISIS. So, I think they underestimated that the Iraqi army has got a lot stronger. It was able to capture Mosul after a very long siege. I think they just underestimated its spread.
The last couple of days, they’ve been trying to avoid a war, but they knew they were the weaker side on the ground. They knew they didn’t have any allies, but it got too late.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. What now? What can we look forward to?
P. COCKBURN: Good question. Well, Baghdad is strengthened. They control Kirkuk, the province. Kurdish leader Barzani has suffered a big defeat, but probably he’ll stay in business, because he’s the sort of feudal leader, so he’ll probably stay there. Then we’ll see..
One thing, you had President Trump’s speech last Friday, which was very hostile to Iran, and the people want to see, is the US going to have permanent bases in Iraqi Kurdistan? Something that probably wouldn’t go down too well in Baghdad, or indeed in the other neighbors.
We’ll also have to see what happens in Syria and is the Islamic State out of business? The US was issuing statements today, saying everybody should focus on defeating Islamic State, ISIS, and it’s lost Mosul in July. It’s pretty well losing Iraq. They’ll probably lose it and Syria in the next few days, but it still has … It’s still a pretty fearsome organization. It’s moved into hideouts in the desert. But I think it’s looking for these divisions in Iraq and Syria, these divisions elsewhere, in order to try and make a comeback. And it’s not completely out of business.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Patrick. I understand you are heading back to Iraq and Kirkuk, so I wish you all the best and look forward to your report when you come back.
P. COCKBURN: Thank you so much.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.