A top Iranian military commander traveled to northern Iraq to urge Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk in a move that Kurdish officials said played an important role in enabling Iraq's government to swiftly retake control of the city from Kurds this week.
Kurdish lawmakers said Major-General Qasem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, met leaders from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq and an ally of Tehran, in the city of Sulaimania the day before Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered his forces to advance on Kirkuk.
Reuters reported that Soleimani told the Kurdish leaders that their Peshmerga forces would not be able to beat Abadi's troops, which had backing from the West and regional powers Iran and Turkey. He also warned them to withdraw from Kirkuk or risk losing Tehran's support, Reuters said.
The Iranian general reminded the lawmakers about late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s harsh putdown of a Kurdish rebellion in 1991, Reuters quoted the Kurdish political leaders as saying.
"Soleimani's visit...was to give a last-minute chance for the decision makers not to commit a fatal mistake," Reuters quoted one PUK lawmaker as saying.
Ala Talabani, a leading PUK official, said the Iranian general only provided what she described as "wise" counsel in his meetings with Kurdish leaders.
"Soleimani advised us ... that Kirkuk should return to the law and the constitution, so let us come to an understanding," she said on the Arabic language TV station al-Hadath.
Kurdish Peshmerga commanders have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shi'ite-led Iraqi central government's push to retake control over Kirkuk and other areas that came under Kurdish control when the Peshmerga ousted Islamic State militants from the region in recent years.
Iranian officials have denied the accusation.
Reuters quoted an official close to Iranian President Hassan Rohani as saying that the move by Kurdish leaders to hold a referendum on independence, which was resoundingly approved in their northern automonous region and areas around Kirkuk last month, had prompted worries in Tehran that Baghdad would permanently lose control of the critical oil fields around Kirkuk.
Abadi rejected the Kurdish independence referendum as illegal and launched a campaign to retake control of Kirkuk, which fell quickly to Iraqi government forces on October 16 after less than expected resistance from Peshmerga forces.
Soleimani's role in the struggle over Kirkuk emerged as the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq cast blame on each other for their devastating loss of the city.
The Iranian general has become a well-known presence in Iraq, often seen in television footage from the frontlines in battles against IS, where he served as an adviser to Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary forces that Tehran funds and arms.
Soleimani in his visit with Kurdish leaders apparently exploited a division between the two main Kurdish parties over both the referendum and the crisis in Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider to be the heart of their homeland.
Before the referendum, the PUK had accused its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), of putting Kurds at risk of Baghdad's military intervention by pushing too hard for the independence vote.
Soleimani at that time warned PUK leaders that a vote on secession -- which Iran feared would encourage its own Kurdish population to agitate for greater autonomy -- would be risky.
On October 6, barely a week after the vote, Soleimani attended the funeral of PUK leader Jalal Talabani.
Iranian officials told Reuters that Soleimani met with PUK leaders after Talibani's funeral and urged them to withdraw from Kirkuk, saying that in exchange Tehran would protect their interests.
An Iraqi intelligence source confirmed to Reuters that Soleimani played a role in convincing PUK leaders not to resist Baghdad's advance on Kirkuk.
The KDP afterwards accused the PUK of betraying the Kurdish cause by capitulating to Iran and striking a deal to withdraw.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, who heads the KDP, blamed the PUK for the swift fall of Kirkuk, saying the evacuation of the city was forced by "certain people in a certain party."
The Peshmerga command, which reports to Barzani, said that Peshmerga divisions that were loyal to the PUK abandoned their positions as the Iraqi government forces advanced on Kirkuk. It accused the PUK of "a great and historic treason" -- a charge the PUK strongly denied.
With reporting by AP and Reuters