The Peshmerga had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 after they defeated Daesh there, which had earlier driven the Iraqi military out of the region. Instead of handing it back to the federal government, the Kurds decided to allow its residents to participate in last month's independence referendum, which was condemned by Baghdad as being unconstitutional. The Kurds, however, sought to use a legal loophole of sorts to justify their de-facto incorporation of the city into their regional government, arguing that Article 140 of the constitution decreed that a referendum was supposed to have been held there anyhow by 2008 to determine whether it would join the Kurdish Regional Government or not, though the vote obviously didn't happen at that time.
In any case, the referendum was about independence — not an Iraqi internal political redrawing — and it took place all over the Peshmerga-controlled territories of Northern Iraq, not just in Kirkuk, though this city has emerged as the flashpoint in the separatist crisis. Iraqi federal officials have held high-level meetings with their Iranian and Turkish counterparts in hashing out a coordinated response to containing the renewed trend of Kurdish separatism in the region. All players have to tread lightly, however, since they don't want to give off the impression that they're waging a "War on the Kurds" because this would only retroactively legitimize this group's independence aspirations on the grounds that they're being unfairly targeted. That's why Baghdad has been clear that it's opposed to the Kurdish separatist forces in Northern Iraq, not the Kurds themselves, though there's evidently a counter-information campaign underway to frame it otherwise.
Once-disputed Kirkuk is now indisputably in the hands of the federal government, but that hasn't done anything to stop the separatist Kurds inside their internationally recognized sub-state territory of Northern Iraq. This is where the situation becomes highly sensitive, however, because the question now becomes one of how far the Iraqi Army will go, how fast they'll move, how long they'll stay in a region where they're visibly not wanted, and whether they can sustain this campaign indefinitely, whether on their own or with the possible assistance of their Iranian and Turkish partners. While Baghdad may have won the "Battle of Kirkuk", the war against Kurdish separatists might have only just begun.
Ali Musawi, war correspondent based in Erbil, Iraq, and Joe Lauria, veteran foreign-affairs journalist, commented on the issue.
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