Over the past few days, the city of Kirkuk once again has become the center of an age-old conflict between Arabs and Kurds; but is everything as it seems? For the most part you’re going to hear about intense fighting, Peshmerga retreating and Iraqi-backed militia invaders; but the truth is so much more and quite honestly it’s on a convoluted level that few of us will ever be able to grasp nor fully uncover in all likelihood. If we want to start to grasp the situation, an understanding of some cultural, political, and economic differences is needed. This can be an incredibly confusing dynamic on its own but injecting it into the situation that is currently Kirkuk makes it all the more convoluted. In any case the following is my evaluation of the situation, based on extensive experience in the region and from what Peshmerga sources on the ground are telling me from their first hand accounts.

Peshmerga stand ready for the assault, stopped roadside of a major highway in Kirkuk.

We know that on Monday morning Iraqi and Iran backed militants began an assault on the city, starting near the outlying cities of Bashir, Tuz Khurmatu and Hawija; locations that are predominantly home to Shia Muslims and a rather heavy ethnicity of Arabs  in population. This is relevant because the paramilitary forces were primarily two groups, Hashd Al Shabi and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), that are both Shia-bred and backed. Both receive arms and funding from the Iranian and Iraqi governments. These are the same guys that shot at Pershmerga last October and were threatening Peshmerga during the Mosul offensive with direct action if the Kurds did not cease their advance into the city and allow the Government of Iraq (GoI) to take over. Both militias have a long history of extreme anti-American sentiment and have openly expressed these views; I’ve had a couple run-ins with Hasd Al Shabi overseas now and they are not friendly dudes. Hostile would be an understatement. Now on the flip side, the Kurdish Muslim population is almost entirely Sunni. Sunni and Shia have an extreme hatred for each other that stems from opposing religious viewpoints in  regards to who was the true profit for Allah. Like seriously, they’ve been at war since the inception of Islam. So religion is a bit of a hot topic here that nobody is talking about and it is certainly a motivation for that particular Arab community to take part in the action; that isn’t even mentioning the decades-old hatred between Kurds and Arabs or the fact that the Iraqi government wants control of the Kurdish government, which they kind of have already, or the matter of all the oil in Kirkuk. So we have religious, political, economic, geographic and ethnic motives in play here that affect both parties; both motivated more or less by the opposite of the others’ desires. Sounds like a high school rivalry from Hell.

The front gate of the 9th Brigade Peshmerga base in Daquq.

That breaks down the motive for the conflict more or less as Barney style as possible (a term of endearment used by my Drill Instructor to simplify an explanation); believe me, we can go a whole lot further down the Rabbit hole on that one but there are other important facts that need to be stated so I’ll save it for another time.

So what happened? According to sources within 3rd Special Forces Brigade -a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga unit- the militias initiated contact Sunday night on the outskirts of Tuz Kurmatu and were met with heavy resistance from Kurdish forces; 4 BTR armored personnel carriers were destroyed and the militias retreated to the village of Amirli. It was also reported that coalition air support dropped several bombs on militia positions over the course of these events; this has yet to be confirmed. One the first bases to fall was the infamous 9th brigade compound, located in Daquq, a small town on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk, where so many foreign volunteers got their start with the Peshmerga and so many others came to become fraudulent assholes. The next was K1, a Joint Peshmerga/U.S. Special Operations base that happened to have a lone American Volunteer on it when the order to retreat was given. According to him they were “bugging out” because an Iraqi armored division was headed for them and the Special Forces had already left.

A 3rd Brigade Peshmerga convoy moves through the fields on the outskirts of Kirkuk.

Not long after all this, the Peshmerga were given the order to retreat. Thousands of Peshmerga pulled back from the city and returned to their respective bases or border outposts. With a seemingly surefire victory with an initial battle already won and coalition air at their side, the idea that they decided to just retreat, is not likely. Orders were disseminated through the ranks from the leadership in the PUK to leave Kirkuk and turn it over to the invading militias and Iraqi government control. After speaking to multiple Peshmerga who were part of this chain of events, many feel betrayed by the men charged with leading the PUK and feel great shame in what has transpired. According to a contact within the personal guard of the PUK’s 2nd in command, Pavel Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani who passed away on October 3rd this month in Germany, struck a deal with the government of Iran to exchange Kirkuk for money and trade agreements. Of course now that Kirkuk has become occupied Iraqi Arab and Shia Muslim-occupied territory, all of the region’s Kurdish Sunni Muslim residents are fleeing if not being forced to evacuate under the threat of violence or death. According to multiple Kurdish media sources, at least 10 Peshmerga have been beheaded by the militias and several others killed; how accurate all that is, no one can be sure. Much of the Kurdish media is owned by the PDK, the Diplomatic Party of Kurdistan, and they have a long-standing rivalry with the PUK; they actually fought a four year civil war in the 90s over their differences so it’s easy to imagine that the KDP backed news would have no problem smearing the PUKs name. So what is really known? Not a whole lot but a lot of hearsay and it will probably remain that way as with all of Kurdish politics.

A Peshmerga reportedly killed by Hasdt Al Shabi

What does all this mean for America? Nothing yet, we will wait and side with the victor for oil rights more than likely and it’s not like the U.S. has ruined its relationship with the Kurds because almost everyone is blaming the PUK; it’s not like the U.S. was expected to attack GoI forces anyway? We all knew this was coming once ISIS was eliminated but did nothing to really prevent or prepare for it. The Iraqi government has been threatening the Kurds for their border expansions during the ISIS conflict for its entirety. On a personal note it deeply frustrates me to see this territory turned over without a real fight and to watch so many Kurdish citizens being forced to flee. Peshmerga means “those who face death” but I guess that’s more of a situation dictates kind of motto.

Kirkuk as seen from the remains of FOB Warrior