The reality on the ground has changed drastically since the Americans made the Kurds withdraw from Kirkuk in 2003.
While the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and other Sunni militant groups are advancing south while carrying out attacks, the Kurds have taken control over the historically significant and oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
In the past, the Kurds and Iraqi government have experienced conflicting ideas and aspirations for the disputed city. Just a few years ago, the Kurds and the Iraqi army were involved in a confrontation that almost led to war.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) head of the foreign relations, agreed to speak to VICE News' Danny Gold about the Kurds’ motivation behind Kirkuk, the failure of the American-trained Iraqi army, and the growing reality that ISIS is becoming their neighbor.
VICE News: What’s the historical significance of Kirkuk? And why does it mean so much to the Kurds to have it under their control?
Bakir: Kirkuk has been the symbol of our oppression — has been the symbol of our deprivations and has been the symbol of denial of the rights of the Kurdish people. So there have been attempts in order to change realities on the ground to have demographic change and our rights were usurped.
Therefore Kirkuk is important not because of the oil that it has. All of Kurdistan, we have oil and gas so it’s not about oil and gas, it’s about the people. It’s about the land, it’s about justice.
VICE News: Two years ago, I was in Kirkuk and the talk was of the standoff with the Iraqi army in the Tigris Force and with the delay of Article 140 which would have given a vote to the people of Kirkuk to see if they want to belong to the KRG. Neither one of those things seems like it exists anymore.
Bakir: Well yes. The reality on the ground has changed. Today’s Iraq is different than last week’s Iraq. We were waiting for a solution. Indeed we have been betrayed in that, because that was a constitutional commitment. A commitment that started with TAL, Transitional Administrative Law. And it needed to be implemented. We did now want to impose a solution on the people, we wanted to give the right to the people for the people to make the final saying in the situation. But unfortunately everybody was avoiding that. Cause they were sure of the results.
VICE News: In 2003, when the Kurds first took Kirkuk, the Americans sort of made them withdraw, asked them to withdraw. Is there anyway that the Peshmerga will withdraw now since they’ve taken over again?
Bakir: Peshmerga is out there to stay, to defend, and also to protect the people and the land.
VICE News: So there’s no way the Kurds are going to give up Kirkuk one more time?
Bakir: Why? What for? Because if the forces which are there, have fought and felt that they were loyal to the land, they would not have betrayed it.
VICE News: By that you mean the Iraqi army?
Bakir: Of course, of course and army that the Americans have helped rebuild, they have spent billions of dollars on that army, very well-paid, very well-equipped but they did not have the morale. I want to make sure that it’s not the weapons that make the men, it’s the men that make weapons effective.
VICE News: But when you have a group like ISIS, even though it’s not in their best interest to attack the Peshmerga, can you really trust that there won’t be fighting again in these areas?
Bakir: The political landscape in Iraq has changed, the balance of power has changed, and now we are a neighbor to another emerging state in Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Today, Iraq is not our neighbor, ISIS is our neighbor.
VICE News also talked to Peshmerga commander Nakib Abdula about the situation in Iraq.
The Kurds have the 12th division army base of the Iraqi army under their control after it was abandoned. Most people don’t think they’re ever going to give it back. It’s an issue of dignity.
Abdula: When ISIS attacked Mosul and took control, the Iraqi army here got scared. The (Iraqi) army troops gathered here and here crushed. Arab civilians, along with ISIS, came and occupied the base and took control. They burned all the materials and equipment belonging to the Army. Right now we are controlling the area. We have large amount of forces stretching from inside Kirkuk to Mala Abdulla (village).
We are in total control and there is no way we will allow ISIS to come here. So the ISIS fighters here are made up from different groups; very violent terrorists, ISIS themselves, Ansar Islam as well as Naqshbandi (Sunni extremist).
They got their hands on anti-aircraft guns and Hummers belonging to the Iraqi army and now they're using them in the fight against Peshmerga forces.
As Peshmerga forces, we have the situation under control. We are facing them and we won't let them move any closer.
VICE News: When the Iraqi army left, did they tell you come take our base? Did they let you know about everything did they just leave and you were stuck here to fight?
Abdula: No, not at all. They didn't ask us. We didn't want Kirkuk and the surrounding areas to be controlled by ISIS. It will not fall into the hands of ISIS. We came as Peshmerga forces to help the Iraqi army.
VICE News: After what happened in the 60s and starting with Arabization and after that point with the Americans in 2003, do you think there’s any chance that the Kurds will give up Kirkuk now or is this going to be Kurdish territory now forever?
Yes, in both my opinion and from the viewpoint of the Kurdish Regional Government, we will protect Kirkuk until our last blood. We will not allow it to fall into the hands of our enemies. We will defend the land of Kirkuk, because we want these areas to return to Kurdistan. As much as we can, we will help the Iraqi Army from here to Hamrin Mountain.