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Confrontation Over Kirkuk In Iraq Reignited After Kurdish Independence Vote


There's a confrontation going on over the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and it's between two factions who have been trained and equipped by the United States. On one side are the Iraqi Kurds, and on the other side is the Iraqi central government. Both have been key allies in the U.S. fight against ISIS. The showdown has been a long time in the making, but it really heated up when Kurds recently voted to secede from Iraq. And when it finally boiled over last night, Iraqi forces moved very quickly into what had been a Kurdish stronghold.

David Zucchino has just returned to Baghdad from Kirkuk, where he's been reporting on this for The New York Times. He says the central government's troops exploited Kurdish divisions.

DAVID ZUCCHINO: As it turned out, they had managed to split the Kurds by cutting a deal with one faction of the Kurds to have them pull back and let government forces come through. But the other faction, the one that actually rules the autonomous area, decided to stay and fight. And so there was an outbreak of hostilities. But because half of the Kurdish factions just kind of surrendered and withdrew, it made it very easy for the Iraqi forces, the government forces to really sweep through very quickly.

MCEVERS: So does that mean that Iraqi forces from the central government in Baghdad are now in control of the city of Kirkuk?

ZUCCHINO: They absolutely are. They went to the governor's compound, where there were two flags. One was the Iraqi flag and one was the Kurdish flag. And they took down the Kurdish flag, left the Iraqi one and then went around the city taking down all the Peshmerga posters and flags and replacing them with their own. And there was a huge celebration. People poured out into the streets, mostly Turkmen and Arabs, firing guns and honking horns and parading with flags. And it went on for hours.

MCEVERS: And we should just say the Peshmerga forces of course are Kurdish forces. How much can you say that this vote for independence has to do with Baghdad's decision to go and take Kirkuk, as we mentioned in the introduction?

ZUCCHINO: Yeah, I mean, this has been something they've been pushing for since they carved out that autonomous zone in 1991. It was right after the Gulf War when they had the no-fly zone set up by the U.S. But what pushed it I think this time is Barzani, who's the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, perceived that the Iraqi government was focused on the fight against ISIS, was in a weakened position. And he figured the Peshmerga would never be stronger because they had done very well in Mosul against ISIS.

So I think that's why he pushed it now. And secondly, I think because he's in his 70s. He's been pushing this for a long time. And he cares about his legacy, and I think that's why he pushed ahead. But it's very clear now he miscalculated.

MCEVERS: What have U.S. commanders said about this?

ZUCCHINO: They didn't take sides, had nothing to do with it, and they just got the heck out of the way basically. The U.S. politically and militarily said, well, we're not taking sides in this fight. We're just going to let it happen and try to get both sides to cool down. But in reality, politically, the Americans were extremely upset with Barzani because they had offered him what they call the best deal the Kurds are ever going to get. This was before the referendum.

And they had offered U.S. supervision of the direct negotiations with no conditions with Baghdad. And Barzani absolutely turned them down. He wanted a guarantee that at the end of that process at some fixed time and date there would be independence. And the U.S. said, absolutely not. And when he turned them down, they said, that's it.

MCEVERS: How do you see this playing out? What do you think is going to happen in the coming days?

ZUCCHINO: The big question now is, does the Iraqi army stop - and they've indicated that they are - and not go into the three provinces where they have this autonomous Kurdish region? And they've been very independent for 26 years. It's a question of whether they stop there or try to interfere. And that's kind of what we're all waiting to see.

MCEVERS: David Zucchino of The New York Times, thank you very much.

ZUCCHINO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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