Iraqi troops seize parts of oil-rich Kurdish region that voted for independence

Iraqi forces drive towards Kurdish peshmerga positions on October 15, 2017, on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE | AFP | Getty Images
Iraqi forces drive towards Kurdish peshmerga positions on October 15, 2017, on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk.

Iraqi army units on Sunday seized positions in and around Kirkuk, a major oil city that’s dominated by the country’s Kurdish people and which voted for independence last month.

The Iraqi national army has taken control of Kirkuk’s industrial district and oil refinery, Reuters reported, citing a statement from the military.

Reports indicated that the Iraqi troops had not faced any opposition from Kurdish peshmerga militia fighters in the area. The Iraqi units went on the move toward Kirkuk around midnight local time in order to “safeguard” the area, military commanders said.

Oil prices reacted strongly to the news, with Brent crude rising as much as 1 percent to $57.88 a barrel during Asian trade on Monday. U.S. oil futures meanwhile were just below the $52 level.

“Just as the battle against ISIS seems to be finally ending, there is a new theater of battle emerging in Northern Iraq,” John Kilduff, partner at energy-focused investment manager Again Capital, told CNBC.

Moving toward airbase northwest of city

The Iraqi maneuvers come after Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and other Kurdish-dominated areas including Kirkuk held an independence referendum last month.

The Kurds are a separate ethnic group from the Arabs and are primarily Sunni Muslims. The Iraqi army is dominated by Arabs who are Shiite Muslims.

A map of Kirkuk, showing the close proximity of the K-1 airbase, marked at upper left. Courtesy Google Maps.

In a Friday research note, risk consulting firm Eurasia Group warned that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi “is increasingly committed to re-establishing central government control over the territories contested by Baghdad” and the Kurds.

Iraqi forces want to take over the Kurdish-controlled K-1 airbase, which used to be an Iraqi air force facility, a senior official told Reuters on Sunday.

Potentially big implications for oil

Iraq is the second-biggest oil producer in OPEC. Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq are among the most productive in the country and contain much of its energy infrastructure.

“Oil prices could spike a lot higher on this development because this time is different, after years of war in the region. The battle, finally, is for the oil, and no other reason. In other words, here we go,” Kilduff said.

Kilduff added that oil infrastructure, which was largely spared in previous fighting, “will likely be the main target this time around.”

The Pentagon has urged both sides to “avoid additional escalatory actions” and warned that it opposed any destabilizing actions that detracted the fight against Islamic State militants, Reuters reported on Monday.

Kurds want independence, but the world balks

The Kurds have pressed for their own nation state for more than a century, but that movement gained momentum after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, that followed.

Kurdish fighters were among the most effective troops for the Iraqi government during the Iraq War, and they have easily been the most successful force on the ground against ISIS, which swept the regular Iraqi army from the field in 2014.

“In the summer of 2014, Kurdish forces exploited the collapse of the Iraqi army in northern parts of the country to move into areas claimed both by the region and by federal authorities, especially oil-rich Kirkuk. The central government remains unlikely to accept this presence,” Eurasia Group said.

Kurdistan includes parts of Iraq, IranTurkey and Syria. Kurdish independence is opposed by every major player in the region — even including the United States, which has fought closely alongside the Kurds since 2003.

“The Kurds have no friends — Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Russia, and the U.S., among others, have decried their independence push,” Kilduff said.

—CNBC’s Patti Domm contributed to this report

Correction: This report has been updated to reflect that Kirkuk voted in favor of independence without formally declaring it.

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