The fall of Kirkuk’s oil fields on Monday, Oct. 16 capped a stealthy, rapid-fire coup, masterminded by Al- Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards IRGC) which, three days earlier, President Donald Trump roundly denounced and pledged to cut down.
Soleimani, the tireless engine of Iranian expansion, put the Shiite militias in line to spearhead the operation, while making sure of its success by a fast shuttle of diplomacy-cum-intimidation between Baghdad and two Kurdish cities, Irbil and Suleimaniya.
Caught napping by this epic fiasco, the United States responded with an ostrich-in-the-sand attempt to play it down: The US Central Command, which coordinates the coalition campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said it was aware of “gunfire exchanges overnight.” In a statement, Maj. Gen. Robert White put it this way: “The engagement appeared to be a misunderstanding that occurred in the dark of night. We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”
In keeping with its policy of silence on the Syrian and Iraqi warfronts in recent months, the US, perhaps understandably, omitted to name the operation’s real commander, Gen. Soleimani. The Shiite militias he deployed were the 16th PMU Brigade; the Badr Organization’s Turkmen Brigade; and the 41st, 42nd and 43rd brigades of the Asai’b Ahi al-Haq forces, which are part of the PMU. Each was led by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer.
Within hours, they had delivered into the hands of the Iraqi army the following Kirkuk assets: the K1 military base, the governor’s palace, the provincial council, the North Oil Company and North Gas Company headquarters, the Kirkuk Regional Air Base and key road junctions.
Kurdish resistance was gutted by fraternal betrayal. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), expected to hold parts of Kirkuk against Iraq-Iranian forces, deserted. This faction, whose seat is in Sulamaniyeh near the Iranian border, is the rival of semiautonomous KRG President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which rules from the capital of Irbil.
By Thursday, the Iraqi army had still not entered the KDP-controlled parts of Kirkuk, or the oil fields of Dibis district, which provide the KRG with 275,000 barrels per day out of a total production of 620,000 bpd. However, five Iranian Revolutionary Guards garrisons and a command center were already going up in the oil city.
Barzani is said to have gone to pieces from the humiliating defeat suffered by his Peshmerga army in an engagement of less than 12 hours on that fateful Monday.
In Washington, President Trump saw the Revolutionary Guards provocatively and nimbly applying levers to bend American allies to their will, in total disregard of the punishing sanctions he threatened.
He was finding that even a major speech, if not backed by swift action and canny diplomacy, doesn’t cut it in such flashpoint regions as the Middle East. The Revolutionary Guards general had picked up the ball and run with it in Kirkuk, before Trump, Defense Secretary James Mattis or the US forces stationed in Iraq had caught on to what he was up to.
When the KRG president Barzani denounced Baghdad’s action as directed against “the people’s right to vote on their fate” and accused the rival Kurdish party, the PUK of a “great and historic treason,” his bitterness was directed against his fellow Kurds, but no less at Washington for letting it happen.
Soleimani had pulled the wool over his eyes when he arrived in Irbil just before the Kirkuk attack. The Iranian came straight from urging Haydar al Abadi to launch the attack – else Tehran would. In Irbil, he pretended that he was doing his best to avert the operation and, to save the day, he advised Barzani to call off the results of the Sept. 25 independence referendum.
But on the quiet, the Al Qods general also made a side-trip to Suleimaniya and told the Talabanis it was in their best interest to ditch Barzani’s Peshmerga defenders when Kirkuk came under assault. This clan rules the opposition Kurdish party and produces some of the Pershmerga’s younger officers.
(Details of the two-part conspiracy Iran has set in motion are revealed for the first time in the lead article of this issue.)
By this scheme, Tehran not only sought to poke Washington in the eye, but also to slap Russian President Vladimir Putin in the face and make him understand that their alliance in Syria in no way inhibits Iran’s freedom of action.