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    Members of Iraqi federal forces gather to continue to advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk, Iraq

    Baghdad's Advance on Kirkuk Has 'Broken the Kurds' Back'

    © REUTERS / Stringer
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    After taking Kurdish-controlled areas in Kirkuk province and advancing on strategic points around Mosul, Baghdad says that Iraqi Kurdistan's recent independence referendum is a thing of the past. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist and specialist in Iraqi and Kurdish politics, told Sputnik what Erbil's future will likely be.

    Speaking to Radio Sputnik, freelance journalist and Kurdish affairs specialist Wladimir van Wilgenburg said that by taking Kirkuk, Baghdad has effectively "broken the back of the Kurds," making it "very difficult to implement the results of [the September 25] referendum."

    "It doesn't mean there is no support for Kurdish independence, but at least for now this referendum talk is going to be over for the Kurds," the observer added. Iraqi Kurds went to the polls last month, with 92.7% of voters marking their support for independence amid turnout of 72.8%. Baghdad criticized and rejected the plebiscite's results.

    Asked what options Iraqi Kurdish authorities have now, van Wilgenburg stressed that militarily at least, their options are very limited: "The problem is that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have withdrawn from most of the areas in the disputed territories; they don't have much say over these territories anymore, so it's very difficult for the Iraqi Kurds to counter this."

    A flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region flies as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take position to monitor the area from their front line post in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometres north-east of Mosul (File)
    © AFP 2019 / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE
    A flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region flies as Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters take position to monitor the area from their front line post in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometres north-east of Mosul (File)

    "The only hope," according to the analyst, "is that the West and the US can pressure Baghdad not to take even more steps, and to perhaps broker negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil to come to some sort of concessions or agreement."

    Might Makes Right?

    Ultimately, van Wilgenburg emphasized that perhaps the main thing to remember in the Baghdad-Iraqi Kurdistan diplomatic conflict is politics is about might, not right. "They had a democratic vote – the majority is for independence, but we all know that in this, the international community is not about human rights or international law, but about real power, hard power, so whoever is strongest wins. That is what we're seeing now."

    Finally, asked about Iraqi Kurdistan's future, the observer noted that Iraqi forces will not enter Iraqi Kurdistan proper as it is recognized by the Iraqi constitution, meaning the Kurds will retain a considerable degree of autonomy. As for the possibility of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan sometime in the future, van Wilgenburg said that "with Iraq we have seen over the last few years that nothing can be predicted; anything is possible. At some point, maybe the Kurds are going to be back in Kirkuk…" For now, "at least they have the three provinces under their control and their own government, and that's not going to change for the moment."

    Map of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan
    Map of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan

    On Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi announced that the issue of the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan "belongs in the past," and urged Iraqi Kurdish leaders to conduct dialogue with Baghdad on the basis of the Iraqi constitution. In recent days, Iraqi police and military forces in Kirkuk province secured military bases, government facilities, oil fields and transport infrastructure in areas formerly controlled by the Kurds, with over 60,000 civilians leaving the city of Kirkuk and heading north to the Kurdish-governed Erbil and Sulaimaniyya provinces. On Wednesday, Kurdish Peshmerga forces continued their peaceful withdrawal, leaving areas around Mosul, including the Mosul Dam, as Iraqi forces moved in.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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