In looted Kirkuk armory, hints of the Iraqi crisis endgame

The Iraqi military fled from the oil city, leaving behind their weapons for rebels and smugglers. As Secretary of State John Kerry seeks unity in Baghdad, Kurds are expanding their territory.

Hussein Malla/AP
Iraqi armed Shiite militiamen, followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, parade in the northern oil rich province of Kirkuk, Iraq, Saturday, June 21, 2014.

On the the outskirts of this oil-rich city lies a sprawling air base that was picked clean of its weapons two weeks ago after the Iraqi army cut and ran during an offensive by Sunni insurgents. 

Neither the city – nor the air base – fell to the militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and other Sunni Arab fighters whose rebellion has lit a fuse in Baghdad. Instead the new masters of Kirkuk are Kurdish peshmerga fighters who have used the unraveling of Iraq's army to extend the territorial claims of Iraq's Kurdish minority. 

As for the looted weapons, they're now in the hands of dealers in Iraq's thriving arms bazaars. Some will undoubtedly flow to Sunni Arab insurgents who have already captured tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and light arms from Iraqi bases further north.

“The Iraqi army abandoned the base right after the fall of Mosul (on June 10),” says Karuk Ramadan, a peshmerga officer standing in the shade of two blast walls at the base, which American troops used after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003. “They are traitors who betrayed the nation."

Mr. Karuk proudly shows off a shiny gun that he recently added to his personal collection. "When we arrived, there were thousands of looters loading up their vehicles with weapons. All the weapons that belonged to the army in Kirkuk are now on sale."

Next to him, fellow officer Ismail Jamal, also a Kurd, carries an AK-47 that he just purchased for $600. “I bought this weapon from a regular civilian. You can find dozens of weapons in the arms market now but they are not openly displayed,” he says.

Events in Kirkuk show how new realities are forming and hardening in Iraq, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad trying to shore up the Shiite-dominated government that Washington left behind. Facts on the ground are being created – an expansion in Kurdish territory, a rush of new weapons and prestige to Arab Sunni insurgents – that will test whoever leads Iraq.

Even if a more inclusive government emerges, it would face newly armed Sunni Arab insurgents, on one hand, and unreliable Kurdish allies who have already defied Baghdad by exporting oil on their own terms, on the other.

Kerry said today that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was committed to forming a new government by July 1. However, the collapse of the Iraqi army in much of the northern half of the country leaves Mr. Maliki with a much weaker hand. 

Chaotic retreat 

Karuk, the Kurdish officer, says Iraqi soldiers staged a chaotic retreat south from Kirkuk even though there was no immediate threat from Sunni insurgents. Others here, however, contend that the peshmerga pressured the Iraqi army to abandon its position.

Reinforced concrete slabs topped with barbed wire demarcate the perimeter of the air base. The peshmerga, a well-trained force loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government, not Baghdad, stand guard alongside Iraqi policemen at each of the three gates that lead into the base. It looks like a place that could be easily defended.

Murat, an ethnic Turkman police officer who was also at the scene, said some of the looters drove away in US-supplied Humvees. “Most of them have been retrieved, only a few remain in civilian hands,” he quickly adds after a stern glance from a superior.

None of the men saw the circulation of weapons in oil-rich Kirkuk as an immediate security threat. “We only worry about ISIS, not the local population,” said Murat. “People trade weapons just to make a profit. They won’t use them against the peshmerga or police.”

However, others in the region say many of the weapons looted from the base are already in the hands of insurgents.

Kurdish capital?

The peshmerga now hold disputed Kirkuk, which Iraqi Kurds yearn to see as their capital, and aspire to provide the security that Baghdad couldn't. Kurdish forces are keen to prove themselves as guarantors of stability in this melting pot of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians.

Controlling Kirkuk gives them a golden chance to prove they can run things better than Iraq's central government, which many accuse of triggering the current crisis by alienating Arab Sunnis.

Their political leadership appears to be inching towards a long-threatened declaration of independence. In an an interview with CNN today Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani says, given Baghdad's failures, that "the Kurdish people should now determine their future... the time is now."

Kurdish forces run meticulous checkpoints at the entrances of the city, which has an active front line on its southern tip. They pay particular attention to vehicles of Arab Iraqis, who need a local guarantor to enter Kirkuk if they are not residents.

Kirkuk, which has been rocked by bombings and attacks on a regular basis, has been unusually calm since the peshmerga took over.

Underground arms bazaar

The traditionally bustling arms market – in the heart of the city and in the shadow of an ancient citadel – was shut down by the Asayish, another branch of the Kurdish Regional Government’s security forces.

“The weapons market has been closed for seven days,” says an Asayish officer stationed in an area of Al-Haseer Street where weapons are usually sold in the open.

This tightened security has pushed arms sales underground – with purchases arranged by word of mouth – or to market towns like Chamchamal, 40 miles to the east of Kirkuk.

In Chamchamal, Kurdish men dressed in billowing, low-inseam pants sashay through stalls stacked tall with ammunition, rifle butts, harnesses and military gear. Bullets cost $1 a piece, while pistols and AK-47s fetch up to $1,000.

“People are arming themselves for their protection because if you don’t kill them (ISIS), they will kill you,” says a Kurdish arms dealer. He claims that weapons looted from military bases are either in the hands of ISIS or of the Peshmerga.

Another vendor adds: “People come here to stock up to fight (ISIS) but we only sell to those we know by name.”

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