IRBIL / KIRKUK, IRAQ — As Iraqi forces advance in Kirkuk from the south and west, families are fleeing after gunfire and bombs blasted through the city.
Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) moved into Kirkuk in the early hours of Monday and continue to fight Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers in the contested oil city, in addition to occupying Kirkuk airport.
“We were defending the city but eventually we had no choice but to retreat,” says Jabar Kareem, 37, a Peshmerga soldier heading out of Kirkuk on Monday afternoon, his eyelashes dusty from the crowded road. “They are fighting with advanced weaponry.”
PMUs, locally known as Hashd Shaaby are primarily a Shia fighting force formalized under Baghdad as they fought along other Iraqi and coalition forces during the battle with Islamic State militants. Allied against IS, Kurdish Peshmerga and PMU fighters have been facing off for days around Kirkuk, with both sides massing soldiers and heavy weaponry, and building berms and other defense lines.
Meanwhile Kurdish civilians are pulling out personal weapons and flocking towards Kirkuk as volunteers for the Peshmerga fighters. “When we are attacked, we are all Peshmerga,” says Renas Hassan, 27, normally a taxi driver but now armed and on his way to Kirkuk. “We will not let our city go.”
Roads out of Kirkuk to Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Sulymania are now closed but families continue to leave the city towards Irbil, the Kurdistan Region capital. PMU forces are believed to be in the process of capturing Kirkuk oil fields, which could cut the road off from Irbil.
Kirkuk has long been claimed as part of the Kurdistan Region and part of Arab Iraq. In late September, the Kurdistan Region voted overwhelmingly in support of independence in a referendum, despite objections from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the international community.
Baghdad responded by grounding international flights to and from the region and imposing other sanctions. Baghdad says taking Kirkuk, which was controlled militarily by Irbil and administered by both capitals, is asserting its federal authority. Irbil calls it an attack on Kurdistan.