WASHINGTON – Iraq’s military is not expected to further advance into Irbil, it’s U.S. ambassador said Friday, even as U.S.-equipped Iraqi forces seized another Kurdish-held town just 30 miles south of the regional government’s capital city.
The Iraqi advances follow an Iraqi military operation launched Oct. 16 to seize Kirkuk, an oil rich city in Iraq’s disputed territories, back from Kurdish militias following a September referendum vote by the Kurds to seek independence from Iraq.
Speaking to reporters at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington Friday, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen said that the military operation was intended to “apply the [Iraqi] constitution fully” and restore central Iraqi government control over the disputed territories and border control points.
Yasseen said it was not intended to seize additional territory from Kurdistan, which was recognized as a semi-autonomous region in the 2005 Iraqi constitution. That constitution remains in full force and was not affected by the referendum vote, Yasseen said.
For its part, the U.S. was openly critical of the independence vote, saying it would be destabilizing and take attention away from the fight against Islamic State militants who remain in the region.
Yasseen could not say whether Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had informed the U.S. in advance of his plan to retake Kirkuk. To date the official U.S. position has been to urge both sides to return to negotiations and cease fighting.
Yasseen also disputed reports that the advance was carried out by Iranian-supported militias.
“Prime Minister Abadi wants to implement the constitution and wants the Kurds to come and enter into discussions with him,” Yasseen said. “The trend of his actions after this redeployment has been conciliatory – calling people over to come and discuss.”
“This is why I am saying I would be surprised if they went beyond the limits – unless there is a provocation.”
“I don’t know the extent of [Shiite militias’] involvement in these operations,” Yasseen said. “My reading of it is the bulk of the operation was carried out by federal Iraqi troops.”
Kirkuk was taken by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in 2014 as the Iraqi army fled the Islamic State advance. The city’s oil production, estimated at 300,000 barrels a day, is an important part of the region’s economic growth. Yasseen said the oil production was not why Baghdad seized the city, noting that most if Iraq’s 3.9 million barrels produced per day come from fields near the southern port city of Basra.
“The oil wealth of Iraq is in the South,” Yasseen said.
But the further advances north by Iraq’s federal forces, which were reported Friday by the BBC and other news outlets with reporters on the ground in the region, has raised questions and protests about whether this is part of a larger offensive by Iraq’s central government.
Yasseen said he had not been in contact with the central government and could not speak for Abadi on whether the Iraqi prime minister thought there was the authority to continue to push into Kurdish territory, but remained skeptical that this operation would escalate into a larger fight.
“Honestly, I don’t think they will,” Yasseen said.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.