If you thought the Catalonian independence bid in Spain was going poorly, that one is looking like a stunning achievement in diplomacy compared to what’s going on with the Kurds in Iraq. What started as a debate over autonomy is turning into a straight-up shooting war, with Iraqi federal forces moving on the Kurds and pushing them out of regions they’ve been occupying for a while now.

Last night reports of federal troops moving into the town of Altun Kupri began to come in. The Peshmerga had fortified the area and were well armed, but apparently rather small in numbers. When the government troops arrived they weren’t just exchanging small arms fire, either. (Associated Press)

Iraqi and Kurdish forces are exchanging fire at the border between federal and Kurdish lands, days after Kurds withdrew from disputed territories across northern Iraq.

Iraqi artillery forces shelled Kurdish military positions north and south of the town of Altun Kupri. Thick smoke could be seen rising from a checkpoint just north of the town.

Kurdish forces responded with rocket fire.

While the first communications from the Kurds indicated that they were holding their own, within a few hours we learned that the Peshmerga had mostly been flushed from the town and the attacking troops had raised the Iraqi flag. Perhaps even more disturbing was the makeup of the Iraqi forces. It wasn’t just the federal troops, but a mix of those fighting alongside police units and (for the icing on the cake) Iranian trained militia.

Iraq’s Joint Command has claimed that they are now in full control of Altun Kupri, last town to fall to Iraqi forces in Kirkuk.

It said that the US-trained Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the Federal Police, and the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi have imposed their grip on the town.

Altun Kupri is little more than a hamlet of 10,000 people located on the shore of Dibis Lake. While perhaps not all that strategically significant, the location shows how far this territorial dispute may spread. The town is well to the north of Kirkuk and is more than halfway between Baghdad and the Turkish border.

The Peshmerga are probably among the toughest fighters on the planet, but their numbers are relatively small and their fighting resources limited. If the Iraqi government is going to openly go to war with them it’s tough to be optimistic in terms of their future. In addition to Baghdad going after them, Turkey has already announced that they claim the right to come at the Kurds across their northern border with a full military assault as well. And now that President Trump has come out and said that we’re “not taking sides” in this conflict, the Kurds find themselves basically with no allies in the coming battles.

Of course, it’s still possible that the central Iraqi government will back off after this. They’ve already taken Kirkuk and are positioned to control the major oil fields near there. That seemed to be the biggest bone of contention originally, and if the lines are drawn roughly where they are now the Kurds could maintain a compact autonomous region, though they would lose a lot of revenue. But it would probably need to remain an autonomous region and not an independent nation. None of their neighbors seem to be willing to tolerate an independent country for the Kurds and clearly we’re not going to open up a fresh battlefront to save them.

That’s a pity, really, because the Kurds have been some of our best allies in the region. Sadly, this three-way internal battle playing out in Iraq isn’t one that we started by a long shot. They’ve been fighting each other since before there were printing presses to publish any news about it.