We crossed the Kurdish frontline without realising. It did not amount to much on the morning of 16 October; a few lightly armed men in traditional khaki suits or skinny jeans standing by the highway outside Kirkuk. So we drove on out of the northern Iraqi city, expecting to find Peshmerga fighters dug into defensive positions. Instead, we met advancing Iraqi government forces – armoured Humvees mounted with heavy machine guns and carrying soldiers hardened by months battling Islamic State. They waved and shouted greetings as we turned and raced back.
The Peshmerga, who are the military forces of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, had made a deal with these government troops and withdrawn hours earlier. After waking to find their supposed protectors gone, local Kurds in Kirkuk had organised the makeshift militia by the highway. The men were nervous and knew they could not hold out. But they waited and talked tough while a digger scraped hasty foxholes.
“We’ll fight until we die and won’t let the army enter Kirkuk,” Sirwan, a wiry 25-year-old Kurd told me as others nodded. A portly, white-haired man drove in the direction of the government forces on a scooter, shopping bags at his feet and a WWI-pattern bolt-action rifle on his back. He returned a few minutes later saying the Iraqis were coming. As heavy machine gun fire and artillery sounded to the west, most of the men piled into dusty saloon cars and headed back into the city.
Iraqi soldiers, police and allied Shia militias had been amassing south of the ethnically-mixed city for weeks. Tensions here were inevitable after leaders in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil, 60 miles away, held an independence referendum on 25 September, ignoring the objections of allies, such as the US and Britain, neighbouring Turkey and Iran and the federal government in Baghdad.
Voters overwhelmingly backed secession. But for Kurdistan to be a viable state, it would need control of Kirkuk – the city and province of the same name – and the revenues from its oil fields. The province lies in disputed territory claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil, but the Kurds had controlled the area since the summer of 2014 when Iraqi forces fled before an IS advance. Earlier this year, with IS largely defeated in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed the province would return to federal control.
As the Iraq army approached Kirkuk, more local men had massed in the city itself, positioning themselves at a concrete overpass. Kurdish music blasted from a parked car and some of them fired old Kalashnikovs into the air. Here too there were promises to stay and fight. They believed that they were facing the Shia militias, known as Hashd al-Shaabi, which are accused of abuses and war crimes. “There will be blood on the streets, they will rape our families,” a 23-year-old man called Diyari said.
He and others watched as a pickup passed carrying the bodies of two fallen Kurdish fighters. Ambulances followed carrying the wounded to hospital. Abadi had ordered his soldiers not to initiate violence but return fire if needed, and there were clashes as they closed in. Bullets soon smacked into the concrete around the overpass and mortar shells puffed up earth and dust.
It was over in hours. Nearly 30 of the Kurdish defenders died but the rest slipped away with the tens of thousands of civilians who fled the fighting. They clogged the road to Erbil, passing a 21-metre high statue of a flag-carrying Peshmerga fighter erected earlier this year. Baran Abdullah, 25, watched them leave from a nearby bridge. A Peshmerga, he had come here with his father and brothers to fight but arrived too late. “I wish I was not alive to see this happening. I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
Elsewhere in the city, some Arab and Turkmen residents cheered as Iraqi forces arrived in their streets.
In 2014, I watched Peshmerga pull down Iraqi flags at abandoned military bases in Kirkuk, laughing at how easily the army had been routed. This time, video footage showed Iraqi forces hoisting their own colours at local government buildings and knocking over signs featuring the Kurdistan Regional Government’s de facto president Masoud Barzani.
It was a shockingly swift end to Kurdish control of the city and to prospects of independence. A succession of retreats followed. The Peshmerga soon abandoned the crucial oil fields outside Kirkuk, forming a humiliated convoy of armoured vehicles and trucks piled with weapons, air conditioning units, furniture and fridges. Soon after, their comrades withdrew from areas such as Sinjar, Makhmur and Bashiqa, which Barzani had promised would be part of a new Kurdistan.
It was Barzani who, seemingly overestimating his political and military clout, pushed through the referendum. And it is now he who suffers the most profound ignominy as the head of a region that in days went from perhaps its strongest position ever, to its weakest for a decade. The fall of Kirkuk exposed the schism between Erbil and Baghdad, but also between Kurdistan’s two major political blocs – Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Each controls its own Peshmerga units and it was the PUK’s that initially withdrew from the city after making an agreement with Abadi. The Kurdish groups quickly turned on each other, with mutual accusations of graft and treason that further undermined the region’s weakened position.
Independence now appears impossible, to the relief of neighbouring Iran and Turkey, long anxious about their own restive Kurdish populations. But some of the autonomy the region once enjoyed is now gone too. Even before retaking Kirkuk from the Kurds, Baghdad had stopped the arrival of international flights to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, another city in Kurdistan, and is demanding control of the region’s border crossings, oil exports and even the Peshmerga themselves.