'Treasonous elements colluded to surrender Kirkuk,' says deposed Kurdish governor
Even Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk since 2011, had little forewarning of the swift takeover. He blames factions within his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which he says made a secret Iranian-sponsored deal to surrender the entire region to Baghdad.
Karim spoke frankly to The New Arab about that fateful day from his own first-hand perspective.
On October 15, Karim's office received information that the Iraqi military and Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces militias (also known as the Hashd al-Shaabi) were advancing towards Kirkuk city from the town of Taza, 15 kilometres south, shortly after they recaptured Hawija from the Islamic State group.
"Around midnight, we learned they were coming and that my place of residence was a target," Karim recalled. "I was advised to move from there, which I did. I stayed in the city and in the early hours of the 16th there was some fighting in the southern outskirts of Kirkuk, in the industrial area, between these forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga."
The Peshmerga were successful in this initial fighting, inflicting casualties on the Hashd, destroying some of their vehicles, "including [US-made] Humvees".
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"Then, suddenly, the whole front that was guarded by the Peshmerga basically collapsed." He said this was the result of "an agreement made a couple of days before between the PUK and Baghdad, which was sponsored by the Iranians during the memorial for President [Jalal] Talabani."
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Those who made this deal in the PUK, Karim's own party, had not told him they had promised Baghdad "there would be no resistance by the Peshmerga and that the Iraqi forces would be allowed to come into the city".
The governor nevertheless became aware that something was about to happen upon receiving "indirect information about 24 hours before the attack".
Around 2am, he recalled, "I was going to different neighbourhoods in Kirkuk and basically urging the people to express their support for the Peshmerga to keep up morale".
By then, however, "it was too late do anything".
Karim speaks in unequivocal terms about a "treasonous" betrayal within the PUK.
"When the Iranians met with elements of the PUK, particularly relatives of President Talabani and some rogue elements within the PUK Peshmerga command, they made this deal. Obviously they were promised some rewards as a result of this. Whether these will be delivered or not I don't know."
Kirkuk's takeover "was really a big blow because Kirkuk was very pro-PUK. But after this I'm not sure".
Karim points to the "revenge that is being taken against the Kurds" in Kirkuk since the Iraqi takeover.
"They are not allowed to speak Kurdish in the governorate building; many directors of different departments have been dismissed. You saw the killings and war crimes committed against people in Tuz Khurmatu."
Karim believes that the PUK "can only be saved if those who committed these treasonous acts are exposed and expelled from the party and brought to justice according to the laws of the land".
He also says Iran played a major role in the operation - despite both Baghdad and Washington downplaying, if not outright dismissing, Tehran's role.
"The Iranians were meeting with the people who made this deal across the street from where I lived and it was really clear this was an Iranian plan, Iranian-executed, and carried out mostly by Hashd al-Shaabi.
"Even the police and those with military gear on were actually Hashd al-Shaabi."
Could the PUK Peshmerga, who made up the predominant Kurdish military force in Kirkuk, have fought the Baghdad-aligned troops and fighters - who had advanced weapons including American M1 Abrams tanks - if they hadn't been ordered to withdraw?
Karim said Kirkuk under his leadership "really never wanted a military confrontation".
"We were in our place in the city, which we had protected from IS since 2014. Many of our people paid with their lives to protect the city, the city that welcomed over 700,000 displaced Sunni Arabs refugees who were not welcome in any other part of Iraq."
Nevertheless, if the Peshmerga had stood their ground Karim is adamant "it would have been different".
"This was shown in Altun Kompri and also near Mosul and those areas," he said, referring to the clashes between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi national forces - in which Kurdish fighters killed attacking Hashd militants and destroyed a number of Iraqi military vehicles, including an Abrams tank on the border of Kirkuk and Erbil provinces.
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October's takeover of Kirkuk came shortly after the Iraqi recapture of Hawija from the Islamic State group. For more than a year, Karim insisted that Baghdad's forces should remove IS from Hawija before going to Mosul. Instead, they green-lit the operation to recapture Mosul from IS in mid-October 2016.
|Karim doesn't believe the independence referendum
was the cause of Baghdad's re-taking of Kirkuk,
re-establishing the pre-2014 position [Getty]
Just as the Mosul operation began, IS tried to capture Kirkuk city with a major incursion - successfully repelled by the Peshmerga.
Would Baghdad have intentionally postponed the operation to remove IS from Hawija in order to build up more forces in the province to then seize all of Kirkuk?
"It certainly looks like this," Karim said.
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This may not be the only reason, he insists.
"There was some US political influence in this," he said. "It was during the last presidential election and probably President Obama wanted a victory for himself... This probably played a role in this and Iraq was more than willing to do it. Abadi didn't care about people suffering and being killed and tortured by IS in Hawija - that was not important to him."
Kirkuk province was officially a territory disputed between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Under the Iraqi Constitution's Article 140, its status was supposed to have been resolved through census and a referendum of the people who lived in the area. Karim has said since October 16 that these areas should now be considered "occupied" and no longer "disputed".
He vehemently disputes the notion that Kirkuk's participation in the Kurdistan independence referendum either sparked or justified the Iraqi takeover - and argues that, had Iraq abided by the constitution, the Kurds would not have sought a referendum on independence in the first place.
"Those who were in Iraq with a lot of influence since 2003, the United States, the UN and so forth, could have done something all these years to ensure the Iraqi government abides by the Iraqi constitution and did not violate its articles," he insisted.
"This was the main reason that the decision was made to go ahead with the referendum, because Iraq's intention all along was not to abide by it. Neither Abadi nor [his predecessor, Nouri al-] Maliki before him, believed in the constitution. Had the constitution been implemented the way it was written and voted on by the people, I don't think there would have been any thought about having a referendum."
Embittered by Baghdad's action in Kirkuk, Karim says he hopes Abadi "gets back to his senses and realises the Kurds will not cave in".
"People will always want their rights and I am more convinced today that Kurdistan will be independent."
He also remains adamant that he will return to Kirkuk.
"I hope it will be soon," Karim concluded. "Kirkuk is my city, that's where I was born and raised, and I plan to spend my last days there."
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon