The United States nearly brokered a deal week before last to avert the current crisis over the disputed city of Kirkuk, where Iraqi forces and some Iranian-supported militias displaced Kurdish fighters last week.
It has been widely reported that Iraqi Security Forces entered Kirkuk and a nearby military base and oil fields because of a deal made by the relatives of the late Jalal Talabani, the former Iraqi president and Kurdish revolutionary who died this month. That deal, forged by Talabani’s widow, Hero [Ebrahim Ahmad], and others in her family with the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasim Sulaimani, has uprooted the unity that Kurds have enjoyed since the 2003 war to liberate Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government president, Masoud Barzani, has called Hero a traitor, while Kurds loyal to Talabani have accused Barzani of bringing another calamity upon their people.
But this is only part of the story. According to US, Kurdish, Iraqi and European officials familiar with the diplomacy, the US special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Brett McGurk, came very close to a face-saving compromise between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al Abadi, over last week before Al Abadi ordered his forces into Kirkuk.
These officials tell me that the McGurk compromise would wrest Kurdish control of a military air base outside of Kirkuk known as K-1, where many US special operators are currently stationed. Between 2014 and last week, the K-1 base was secured by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Like the Kurdish fighters stationed in Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields, they took up these positions after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of a Daesh surge in 2014.
The US compromise would have offered a joint administration of the military base for both Kurds and Iraqis with a US general (agreed to by both sides) to settle the disputes. The theory was that this would have allowed Al Abadi to save face after last month’s Kurdish independence referendum, while avoiding the trauma of Iraqi forces taking over a multi-ethnic city that Kurds have long considered their Jerusalem.
But much like the last-minute effort to persuade Kurdish leaders to back off from the independence referendum, the US compromise did not convince Al Abadi to avert the military operation into Kirkuk. According to one western diplomat who was working on the deal, McGurk had asked Al Abadi for another day last Sunday, only a few hours before he ordered his forces into Kirkuk. But Al Abadi did not oblige.
The Kirkuk crisis began to boil as early as October 13. That is when Al Abadi gave Kurdish leaders a 48-hour deadline to remove their forces from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. This prompted members of both major Kurdish parties — including relatives of Talabani — to frantically call US and British officials to put pressure on Al Abadi to back off.
By Saturday [October 14], the Kurdish leadership recognised it had a major problem. Both the Talabani faction and the faction loyal to the current Kurdistan Regional Government president met at Lake Dokan for a summit to discuss Al Abadi’s warning and the potential compromise to stave off the Iraqi military operation. The location was important because it is a midway point between the regional capital of Arbil, which is traditionally loyal to the Barzani family, and Sulaymaniyah, the seat of power for the Talabani faction.
But the Kurdish summit did not reach a consensus on the US compromise. McGurk pleaded for more time with Al Abadi, but time ran out. By Sunday [October 15], Talabani’s widow travelled back to Sulaymaniyah with most of her clan. Later that day they cut the deal with Iran’s Sulaimani. The rest is history.
Now the Kurds have lost their Jerusalem, as Iraqi forces approach what Kurds voted last month should eventually be their independent state’s national borders.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist.