President Donald Trump said the U.S. was not “taking sides” in the clash between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and Iraqi Security Forces who, after fighting ISIS side-by-side for two years, turned against each other this weekend in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
The Iraqi government’s armed movement into oil-rich, Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk is the very thing that many critics of U.S. military intervention warned of: what would happen when the common enemy of ISIS was defeated, and Iraq’s fractious politics were laid bare once again.
With Kurdish social media ablaze with images and video of Peshmerga casualties and Iraqi forces pushing on their positions over the past 48 hours, U.S. officials on Monday downplayed the violence. At the Pentagon and out of Central Command, military spokespeople insisted they had seen just one outbreak of fighting, when two groups that did not communicate their movements clashed in the dark of night. Since then, military leaders on both sides have been communicating, a U.S. defense official told Defense One.
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” said Trump, in an impromptu press conference at the White House following a private meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on legislative issues.
The sides are hardly clear; the U.S. military has spent years training and equipping Iraqi and Kurdish forces with made-in-American arms and knowhow. In recent weeks, the Iraqi government has been warning Kurdish leaders that they would move national forces back into the city, and demanding the Peshmerga withdraw. Over the weekend and into Monday, Iraqi Security Forces took the airport, a government center, and various buildings. But those movements did not amount to “advancing” on Kurdish forces, the defense official said.
Trump echoed Pentagon officials’ effort to condemn the fighting but not Baghdad’s authority, underscoring the United States’ sensitive position.
“Let me tell you, we’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know,” the president said. “And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been in there in the first place. We should never have been there. But we’re not taking sides in that battle.”
Trump’s neutral reaction to the bloodshed drew outrage from Kurdish officials and observers, who remain angry that his administration has not supported their push toward independence from Baghdad. They are calling for international condemnation of Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi’s decision to use military force to assert national government control over the region, which they argue violates the constitution. Iraqi officials, for their part, praised the U.S. for supporting Iraqi sovereignty and rule of law.
Even before Trump spoke to reporters around 2:00 pm Eastern time, other Trump administration and Pentagon officials were sending clear messages that Washington was not coming to help Kurdistan’s rescue.
“We continue to support a unified Iraq,” said Col. Robert Manning, Pentagon spokesman, at an off-camera press briefing with reporters Monday morning. “Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse ongoing tensions and longstanding issues, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.”
Later, after being asked whether Iran was the reason for Iraq’s move into Kirkuk, Manning said in a statement, “The KRG referendum created destabilizing political dynamics that the Government of Iraq has felt compelled to respond to.”
But by the end of the day, the State Department released the administration’s most balanced statement: “We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution, in all disputed areas. We are working with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions, avoid further clashes, and encourage dialogue.”
The United States has troops “in the vicinity of Kirkuk,” including an undisclosed number of special operations forces, another Pentagon spokesman said. These troops are taking force-protection measures and staying out of the fight, the spokesman said. Manning said no U.S. forces are operating with or supporting any operations at Kirkuk at the moment. Coalition leaders at higher levels were urging Kurdish and Iraqi leaders to de-escalate, he said.
“Coalition forces are not playing a part in these ISF and Peshmerga movements around Kirkuk,” said Manning, in an email.
But U.S. arms and gear is. News reports and social media posts from the region showed first-hand images and video of Iraqi forces using U.S.-provided tanks and other heavy weapons, which drew quick fire from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way,” said the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman in one of the first statements out of Washington, hours before reporters elicited Trump’s short answer during his press conference. “I am especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault. Iraqi forces must take immediate steps to de-escalate this volatile situation by ceasing their advances. The United States provided equipment and training to the Government of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats—not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States.”
Barzani has long been considered a valuable U.S. partner; top U.S. military officials visiting Iraq nearly always swing through Kurdistan, in northwest Iraq, and pay him a visit. But officials in the U.S., the United Nations, and most of the international community warned Barzani and Kurdistan officials not to go through with a long-sought referendum vote on independence last month. The vote, Trump administration officials argued, could threaten the precarious political coalition holding Iraq together and give licence to Baghdad and Tehran to tighten control, in the name of national unity.
By Monday afternoon in Washington, Pentagon officials seemed to breathe easier, even amid frenetic accounts of Kurdish casualties and news of Peshmerga ceding military positions.
“The coalition is monitoring movement of military vehicles and personnel,” Manning said. “These military movements, so far, have been coordinated movements, not attacks.”
A coalition statement issued by U.S. Central Command said, “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions. The Coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid escalatory actions.”
Maj. Gen. Robert White, commanding general of Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command - Operation Inherent Resolve, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”
By midday in Washington, on Twitter, images appeared of Iraqi soldiers posing with the bodies of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and standing on the flags of Kurdistan, the United States, and Germany.