ERBIL, Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan 24) – US ambassador to Baghdad Douglas Silliman said his country had maintained a military presence in Kirkuk for quite some time, addressing rumors of a military deployment to the disputed city for the first time since they arose last week.
At a gathering in Baghdad, the top US diplomat in Iraq told reporters the deployment of US troops to Kirkuk – which was neither confirmed nor denied by the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition – was, in reality, a transfer of equipment.
Local Iraqi and Kurdish news outlets quoted members of the Kirkuk Provincial Council claiming a large number of US forces had arrived late last month by helicopter to the K-1 airbase, west of Kirkuk, to maintain the security of the city. The Iraqi Joint Operations Command denied there had been any deployment.
Silliman clarified that US troops were present in Kirkuk before the Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militias’ assault and takeover of the city.
“Our forces have been in Kirkuk for a long time,” he said without specifying any timelines. He asserted it was merely a “transfer of equipment to and from the military base.”
US forces took over the K-1 military base following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. It was abandoned in 2014 by the Americans.
The Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), took control of Kirkuk on Oct. 16, including the K-1 military base and major oil fields which were under the control of the Kurdistan Region until recently.
“The transfer of military equipment to the base was done in coordination with Iraqi forces in the context of the war against [IS] and terrorist groups,” he concluded, echoing the US-led coalition’s statement last week.
“For operational security reasons, we do not publicly announce specific movements of Coalition forces in theater,” the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) statement read. “Any redistribution of forces in Iraq is coordinated with our Iraqi hosts and is based on operational requirements.”
“As [IS] continues to lose territory in Iraq and major operations decrease, the Coalition will tailor how we support the Iraqi Security Forces,” the statement continued.
Kirkuk is an oil-rich province located in the south of the Kurdistan Region and north of Iraq. It is a multi-ethnic province with a diverse religious background made up of Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians. Kurds account for the majority of the population.
The province has been under the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces since the emergence of IS in mid-2014 and the collapse of the Iraqi army which failed to defend the region.
Since the Oct. 16 attack, over 170,000 people in Kirkuk have been displaced to Erbil and Sulaimani out of fear for their safety and the risk of abuses by Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias.
Those who remained now face the threat of emerging armed groups in the wake of the October attack on Kirkuk, Khurmatu, and other disputed areas.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany