Last year’s battle between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi state-sanctioned Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitias in the town of Pirde was hugely significant and may well have saved the Kurdistan Region.
On Saturday, former Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani highlighted the battle’s anniversary – describing it as “epic” – and saluted “the souls of the martyred heroes of that day and all the brave Peshmerga forces who participated in the battle.”
The battle was the first time since the rapid loss of both Kirkuk and Shingal that Kurdish forces successfully repelled an Iraqi advance.
Throughout the course of the battle, the Peshmerga defended its positions and even destroyed a US-made Abrams tank, which the Hashd had brought to the battlefield.
Pirde sits on Erbil’s provincial border with Kirkuk province, the same border that roughly demarcates the constitutionally-recognized Kurdistan Region from the rest of Iraq. Kirkuk and Shingal, which the Hashd seized on October 16 and 17, are disputed Kurdistani territories situated outside the Region.
The ultimate status of these territories was supposed to have been resolved through the framework of the Iraqi Constitution’s Article 140 a decade earlier – but never took place.
Rather than push to resolve their status diplomatically, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi instead exploited the aftermath of the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum to militarily seize these territories.
The battle of Pirde was significant in more ways than one. Historically it was the first military confrontation between the Kurds and Iraqi state forces since the rule of Saddam Hussein. It was also the tensest moment in the post-2003 relationship between Erbil and Baghdad, which could potentially have escalated from a skirmish into a full-fledged war.
The battle’s other significance was its effect in restoring some desperately needed morale to the people of the Kurdistan Region. Kurds were devastated and demoralized by the humiliatingly swift loss of Kirkuk on October 16.
Before the Iraqi advance, Kurds were prepared for some kind of confrontation with Iraq over Kirkuk. Some skirmishes, which the Peshmerga won, did take place south of the city, but no major battle ensued. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) infamously withdrew all Peshmerga under its command, the predominant Kurdish force in Kirkuk, leaving the city defenseless.
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim was left with no choice but to leave his city shortly before Iraqi forces seized his office, where they posed for photographs. He has adamantly insisted ever since that the withdrawal was a calculated act of “betrayal” by elements within his – now former – party.
Kurds were then dismayed to see Kirkuk’s Kurdish police chief denied from speaking in Kurdish during a live press conference. Photos of Hashd and Iraqi troops desecrating Kurdish flags added insult to injury.
In the ethnically-mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu, more than 100,000 Kurds were displaced by Hashd-instigated violence.
Shortly thereafter, in the early morning of October 19, rumors spread on social media that the K1 military base in Kirkuk had been bombed, either by Israel or Saudi Arabia, and that a Peshmerga offensive to recapture the city was imminent. This came amid protests by Kurdish civilians against the Iraqi takeover.
While these rumors were extremely dubious, many Kurds wanted to believe them since it would have meant there was at least some hope that their humiliation was about to be reversed.
The following day the battle of Pirde began. The ferociousness and determination with which the Peshmerga repelled the Hashd push toward Kurdistan’s frontier aptly demonstrated that the Kurds still possessed the means and willing to defend their homeland.
How far those Hashd forces ultimately intended to advance that day remains unclear. It is also unclear whether those particular fighters were under the complete command and control of Baghdad. It is possible they could have been acting independently and opportunistically to see if they could capture parts of the Kurdistan Region itself.
In a statement
commemorating the battle, the Peshmerga Operations Command Room maintained that the “treason” which led to Kirkuk’s swift takeover “resulted in our enemies thinking the Kurdistan Region [was] an easy pill to swallow and wanted to conquer it, thus heading towards the capital Erbil.”
In the aftermath of the referendum – and even during his visit
to the Kurdish capital earlier this year, after months of tensions finally thawed – Abadi essentially advocated for the dismantling of the Region’s autonomy.
Had it not been for the stand taken by the Peshmerga at Pirde, little to nothing would have stopped him or the Hashd from bringing a quarter-century of Kurdish self-governance to an abrupt end.
A year on, a lot of progress has been made. The punitive flight ban Baghdad imposed on the Region has been lifted and its autonomy remains intact. The results of the independence referendum, while frozen, were not “cancelled” as Iraq demanded. Kurds were once again influential in the formation of Iraq’s new government.
The Erbil-Kirkuk road through Pirde has also been reopened.
However, conditions in neither Kirkuk nor Shingal have improved in any discernable way during the past year under Iraqi control. Baghdad’s actions irreparably destroyed the trust which led to historic and productive cooperation between its army and the Peshmerga against the Islamic State. ISIS remnants in Kirkuk have since exploited the gaps
between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga lines to their advantage.
For Kurds, the loss of Kirkuk so soon after voting overwhelmingly for independence was the most crippling setback for their aspirations in decades. Such deep wounds could take up to a generation to heal.
That being the case, had it not been for the stand made by the Peshmerga at Pirde, the Kurdistan Region and its people could well have lost everything they had achieved over the course of several decades in a just a matter of days.