ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Amid accusations of a coordinated withdrawal between Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces and those loyal to Baghdad, Bafel Talabani insisted that the withdrawal was “tactical” and only made after its military leaders saw almost 100 men lost facing an enemy vastly “superior in firepower.”
Talabani also claimed that “leaders in Kurdistan” were “unable to decide the correct course” regarding multiple deals offered by key international players including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Baghdad.
Kirkuk, a PUK stronghold with its Peshmerga and governor in place, had largely safeguarded the oil-rich city from ISIS threats with the help of the US-led international coalition over the past three years.
"Our Peshmerga forces are well known for their defense of Kirkuk over the previous years. We have lost our bravest commanders and Peshmerga defending Kirkuk from every kind of threat,” said Talabani, a son of the party's late leader Jalal Talabani speaking to France 24 on Friday from Sulaimani.
Veteran Peshmerga ground commanders made the decision to withdraw after heavy initial losses defending the city against forces under the command of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, according to Bafel Talabani.
"This time we were faced with insurmountable odds and a vastly superior enemy – superior in firepower. Our military leaders on the ground, Sheikh Jafar [Mustafa], etc. decided to make a tactical withdrawal after a lot of fighting which has cost us almost 100 men and dozens of wounded,” revealed Talabani. “This is the truth of the matter.”
He explained the decision was made in the face of the prospect of "thousands of casualties" and "having fighting spread into Kirkuk."
The PUK member "commended" the decision of the "strategic retreat."
Without offering names, Kurdish Vice President Kosrat Rasul, a veteran Peshmerga commander, has called some within his own PUK party “apostates
” for the withdrawal.
Talabani responded, calling for an "official investigation onto things that happened in Kirkuk" and those who have accused him.
He refused to lay blame on the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leadership.
"I will not attack President Barzani in any way, shape, or form. I will do nothing to try to reduce the impact of Kurdish unity. I'm sorry. Kurdish unity is absolutely paramount,” he said.
Barzani has blamed
“some persons” with in a “certain” political party for the loss of Kirkuk.
Baghdad has issued several arrest warrants for Kurdish leaders including Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, Rasul, and members of the High Electoral and Referendum Commission following the September 25 referendum that saw overwhelming support for Kurdistan independence from Iraq. The central government has also imposed a number of punitive measures against the Kurdistan Region.
"Kurds today need to be united more than ever," said Talabani.
The federal government's re-taking of Kirkuk and disputed areas is part of efforts to reestablish federal control over the whole country.
The PUK member, whose party proudly boasts self-determination as one of its cornerstones, said "the referendum was never the end goal. The end goal was the rights of the Kurdish people."
Talabani added that "in the very last days" before the referendum, the United States, US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk
, and UK Ambassador to Iraq Frank Baker proposed a deal
"A proposal that would have protected us. A proposal that would have guaranteed us the rights to do a referendum in two years if we had tried to negotiate with Baghdad," he revealed.
In the days before the referendum, Barzani repeatedly said they had not received an alternative
that could take the place of the vote, the goal of which is independence. The High Referendum Council, of which the PUK was a member, also refused to postpone
the vote as no viable alternative had been offered.
Talabani emphasized that the rejection of this proposal by "Kurdish leaders" was a "colossal mistake."
Forces from the federal government made movements towards Kirkuk on October 15. "Even then, as the forces were heading towards Kirkuk, Prime Minister Abadi, His Excellency, reached out to us. And we made an honorable compromise," said Talabani.
The deal brokered included the joint occupation of K1 military base by Coalition and "conventional Iraqi troops."
"This is the only deal I've supported," explained Talabani, while raising a document he says was signed by 38 out of 50 PUK leadership members supporting the proposal.
"We would have kept Kirkuk and the tragedy that has befallen the Kurdish people would not have taken place," added Talabani. “But unfortunately again the leaders in Kurdistan were frankly unable to decide the correct course.”
Prior to the military operations, Talabani had made a statement
on October 12 offering to dissolve the Kurdish-led Kirkuk Provincial Council, remove its governor if needed, and enter talks with Baghdad within the framework of the Iraqi constitution in order to resolve the high tensions between Erbil and Baghdad over the independence referendum.
Both Erbil and Baghdad have stated they are willing to enter into negotiations. Baghdad, however, has set a list of concessions
that the Kurdistan Regional Government must accept before talks can commence.