KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — After a decades-long dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, it took just an hour and a half for its fate to be decided.
As al-Qaida-inspired militants advanced across northern Iraq and security forces melted away, Kurdish fighters who have long dominated Kirkuk ordered Iraqi troops out and seized full control of the regional oil hub and surrounding areas, according to a mid-ranking Army officer. He said he was told to surrender his weapons and leave his base.
His account was corroborated by an Arab tribal sheik and a photographer who witnessed the looting of army bases after troops left and who related similar accounts of the takeover from relatives in the army. All three spoke to The Associated Press Friday on condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Kurdish forces.
"They said they would defend Kirkuk from the Islamic State," said the Arab officer, who oversaw a warehouse in the city's central military base. He asked that his rank not be made public. He insisted the Iraqi troops had not planned to retreat before the Islamic state. "We were ready to battle to death. We were completely ready," he said at a roadside rest house just inside the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
The Kurdish takeover of the long-disputed city came days after the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other Sunni militants seized much of the country's second largest city of Mosul and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit before driving south toward Baghdad. Their lightning advance has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A spokesman for Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, said they had only moved in after Iraqi troops retreated, assuming control of the "majority of the Kurdistan region" outside the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
"Peshmerga forces have helped Iraqi soldiers and military leaders when they abandoned their positions," including by helping three generals to fly back to Baghdad from the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, Lieutenant General Jabbar Yawar said in a statement on the regional government's website.
A lawmaker from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led bloc condemned the peshmerga's move, calling it a "plot" carried out in coordination with the regional government that would "lead to problems."
"The Kurds have taken advantage of the current situation. They seized Kirkuk and they have other plans to swallow other areas," Mohammed Sadoun told The Associated Press. Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, who all have competing claims to the oil-rich area. Kurds have long wanted to incorporate it into their self-ruled region, but Arabs and Turkmen are opposed.
In the 1970s and 1980s the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds out of Kirkuk and surrounding regions, settling Arabs from the south in their place in an attempt to pacify a region that had seen repeated revolts.
During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 the highly disciplined peshmerga swept down from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and established a strong presence in a belt of largely Kurdish towns and villages stretching south toward Baghdad.
But the disintegration of Iraqi forces this week seems to have led the peshmerga to assume full control in areas they have long coveted, further enhancing their autonomy from Baghdad and undermining hard-fought U.S. efforts to bring about a stable, multiethnic Iraq.
"To a great extent Kurdish forces had been de facto in control of Kirkuk for some time, but now they're completely in control," said F. Gregory Gause, III, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
He said it was unlikely the Kurds would seek formal independence from Iraq, however, because such a move would be strongly opposed by neighboring Turkey and Iran -- both of which have sizable Kurdish minorities -- as well as Washington.
Concerned about the rapid advance of the Islamic militants, the peshmerga in Kirkuk may have initially offered to conduct joint patrols and then changed their mind, doubting the reliability of their Arab counterparts.
"We greeted them and offered them our hospitality. They told us they wanted to do joint patrols," the Army officer said. "And then they said give us everything: the keys (to the warehouses), the weapons, and go home. It took them one and half hours."
An Arab sheik whose relatives are in the military said they described the same scene to him. "They said whoever resists the order will be dealt with," the officer said. He said he initially refused to hand over the keys to his warehouse and called his commander, who was elsewhere in Kirkuk, for instructions.
"He said: 'Surrender. Your situation is the same as everybody else's situation.'" He and the tribal sheik said they then watched as peshmerga forces looted the base, seizing weapons and driving U.S.-supplied Humvees toward Erbil. At some point, either the peshmerga or other looters set fire to some of the base's buildings, they said.
"They did it without any shame, before everybody's eyes," said the tribal elder. He and the officer said they believed at least 50 vehicles were taken. Similar events transpired in the disputed town of Tuz Khormato, 55 miles (88 kilometers) to the south, said an Arab photographer who witnessed the events, and whose cousin was one of the men who surrendered. There, peshmerga forces set ablaze one police station, but left two standing, he said.
The military official from Kirkuk allowed that the peshmerga would likely be more successful than the army at defending the city from the Islamic state, but worried that ethnic tensions would grow as thousands of soldiers found themselves without work.
He said he also grieved the loss of the base, which had been rebuilt at a cost of "millions of dollars" under U.S. supervision in 2005 and "purchased with the blood of all Iraqis." He said the base had been looted and torched in previous bouts of chaos in Iraq, during the 1991 Gulf war, an uprising against Saddam Hussein and after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
"I guess this happens every 10 years or so. Come again in 2024 and you can watch it happen again."
Hadid reported from Erbil province, Iraq. Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Joseph Krauss in Cairo contributed to this report.