BAGHDAD • Iraqi government forces yesterday said they had achieved their objectives in a lightning operation that saw them sweep through disputed Kurdish-held territory in a punishing riposte to an independence vote last month.
On Monday and Tuesday, federal troops and allied militia retook the northern province of Kirkuk and its lucrative oilfields, as well as formerly Kurdish-held areas of Nineveh and Diyala provinces.
The largely bloodless operation dealt a body blow to the finances of the autonomous Kurdish region, which had derived much of its revenues from exports of Kirkuk oil, and left Kurds in shock and disbelief just weeks after the nationalist fervour of the referendum.
Kurdish claims to the lost territories have long been a cherished cause and their abandonment - almost without a fight - triggered recriminations against the Kurdish leadership.
Kurdish forces are now largely confined to their longstanding three-province autonomous region in the north and have lost nearly all of the territory they had taken since the US-led invasion of 2003, some of it in deadly fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.
French geographer and Kurdistan specialist Cyril Roussel said that in the space of 48 hours, virtually all of the disputed territories held by Kurds had been brought back under federal control in Baghdad.
ALMOST ALL GONE...
The Kurds have lost almost all of the 23,000 sq km that they had acquired since 2003.
MR CYRIL ROUSSEL, a French geographer and Kurdistan specialist, saying that in the space of 48 hours, virtually all of the disputed territories held by the Kurds had been brought back under federal control in Baghdad.
"The Kurds have lost almost all of the 23,000 sq km that they had acquired since 2003," Mr Roussel told Agence France-Presse.
The spokesman for the Joint Operations Command hinted that federal forces could yet be deployed to the remaining pockets of disputed territory still in Kurdish hands.
"It's not a military operation but the redeployment of forces to all areas to enforce the law," the spokesman told AFP.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday that the Sept 25 vote for Kurdish independence was now "a thing of the past". "Central authority must be imposed everywhere in Iraq," he added.
In Kirkuk province, the Kurds now hold just a single oilfield - the Khurmala field, which produces barely 10,000 barrels per day of low-quality heavy crude. The field had been in Kurdish hands since 2008 and was not a target of this week's operation.
But all five of the oilfields that the Kurds had taken since 2014 - and were the source of the lion's share of the autonomous region's oil exports - were retaken by the federal government.
Baghdad was quick to move to exploit its new prize, calling on British energy giant BP to help develop the fields recovered from Kurdish forces.
Oil Minister Jabbar Luaybi appealed to the firm, whose origins lie in the development of oil in then British-ruled Iraq nearly a century ago, to "quickly make plans to develop the Kirkuk oilfields".
At least one analyst in Baghdad was pessimistic about the future.
"Kurds have been managing these areas since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and to change the situation in an instant will make the whole situation as if it is sinking into quicksand," said Baghdad-based analyst Jasim al-Bahadli, an expert on Shi'ite armed groups.
He said the Shi'ite paramilitary groups' presence in areas that used to be controlled by Kurds will help create tensions that could lead to a long-term conflict.
"Sensitivities could develop into hostilities that could spark a civil war," he added.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS