Four weeks after the referendum for Kurdish independence, Iraqi forces have taken back the city of Kirkuk. The city lies outside of the Kurdish autonomous region but has been long contested.
The area is marked by Kurdish-run oilfields, and was ingrained as the symbolic Kurdish capital in 2003 when Kurdish and US forces took the city during the beginning of a northern front against Iraq. In 2014, as ISIS took the Anbar region of Iraq, and the Kurdish Peshmerga captured Kirkuk when Iraqi forces abandoned the city in what was ultimately a successful move to stop the ISIS advance.
Kirkuk is an ethnically diverse city, and is home to Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds. After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2006, a new Iraqi constitution was drafted by the Iraqis and the Americans and granted larger autonomy to the Kurd. This new constitution would give the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) more control over Iraqi Kurdistan than they had before. However, Kirkuk, home to 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, was left out of this.
For the past three years, Kirkuk has been more or less under Kurdish authority. In 2016, ISIS attempted to claim the city and Peshmerga fighters reclaimed the city after several days of fighting.
In march, the governor of Kirkuk order the Kurdistan regional flag to be flown over all the government buildings in the city. This was met with extreme disapproval from Baghdad, Iran, and Turkey. With the Yes vote in late September, the issue of a Kurdish flag in the city took on a deeper meaning.
Because of its oil wealth, Kirkuk is an important city for the Kurds. Were they to gain their independence, It would establish them as an economically viable country and so last week, the Iraqi government, aware of this, sent Iraqi armed forces into the city to retake it.
Now, Kurds are leaving the area en masse and seeking refuge in Irbil, the official capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq. According to CNN, who quoted the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, approximately 61,200 people have been displaced around the city since the fifteenth of October.
What happens next is unknown and is up to the of the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Democratic Party to decide in the coming weeks.