BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish fighters pulled out of disputed areas across northern and eastern Iraq on Tuesday, one day after giving up the vital oil city of Kirkuk — a dramatic redeployment of forces that opened the way for government troops to move into energy-rich and other strategically important territories.
The vastly outnumbered Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, appeared to have bowed to demands from the central government that they hand over areas outside the Kurds' autonomous region, including territory seized from the Islamic State group in recent years.
The evacuations exposed a Kurdish leadership in turmoil in the wake of last month's vote for independence as Iraq's central government shores up its hand for negotiations over resource-sharing with the country's self-ruling minority.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi acknowledged the power shift, saying Iraqi forces took over the disputed areas from the Kurds with barely a shot fired.
"I call on our citizens to celebrate this day, because we have been united," al-Abadi said, calling the independence vote "a thing of the past" as he offered to begin talks with the Kurdish regional government.
The developments followed weeks of political crisis precipitated by the Kurdish leadership's decision to hold the referendum for independence in territories beyond the boundaries of its autonomous region in northeast Iraq.
The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran, which border the land-locked Kurdish region, rejected the vote. The U.S. also opposed the vote, saying it was a distraction on the war against IS.
If the mood in Baghdad was triumphant, it was acrimonious in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, reflecting the sense among many Kurds that they had been betrayed — and by their own leaders.
"Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away," said Amir Aydn, a 28-year-old Kirkuk resident as he returned to the city after fleeing the day before.
A hospital in the nearby Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah said it had received the bodies of 25 peshmerga fighters killed in clashes over Kirkuk. The claim could not be independently verified.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said the evacuation of Kirkuk was forced by "certain people in a certain party," a swipe at his political opponents in the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan, known as the PUK. Barzani heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.
The General Command of the peshmerga, nominally in Barzani's hands, went even further, accusing PUK officials of "a great and historic treason against Kurdistan."
Their accusations were grounded in reports that peshmerga divisions loyal to the PUK had abandoned their positions as the Iraqi government forces advanced, though the KDP-aligned divisions also withdrew, in Kirkuk and in other parts of the country.
The KDP leadership also condemned the PUK for meeting with Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards who advises Iraq's predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilization Front militias, in the buildup to this week's territorial withdrawal. The Shiite militias are an integral part of Iraq's military apparatus but are viewed with considerable distrust by the Kurds, who consider them a symbol of Tehran's influence in Iraq.
Peshmerga commander Wista Rasoul, who led a PUK-aligned division in Kirkuk, denied fractures in the Kurdish military ranks and said the pullout was a response to the central government's vastly superior firepower.
Ala Talabani, a leading PUK official, also defended her meeting with Soleimani on Saturday when he came to pay his respects over the death of her uncle, the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
She said Soleimani's counsel was wise and praised Iran's role in Iraq.
"Soleimani advised us ... that Kirkuk should return to the law and the constitution, so let us come to an understanding," she told the Arabic language TV station al-Hadath.
Barzani insisted he would not give up his campaign for independence, though such hopes seem more distant than ever in the dismal fallout from the referendum. Kirkuk was a vital source of oil revenues for the Kurdish regional government.
Vahal Ali, a senior adviser to Barzani, told The Associated Press the peshmerga would have to withdraw to the areas it held in 2014, before it deployed across northern Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State group — territory that accounts for much of the land the central government wants back. The Kurdish leadership has been quick to point out that it secured Kirkuk and its oil bounty against the Islamic State after regular Iraqi forces fled that year.
Analysts saw a return to the opportunism that characterized Kurdish party politics before the independence vote allowed them to paper over their differences, if only briefly. The PUK did not want to appear opposed to Kurdish independence even though it expressed misgivings over the referendum called by Barzani.
Both parties have an eye on Kurdish regional elections slated for November, said Ahmed Rishdi, an adviser to Iraqi Parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri.
"I think the PUK and the KDP distributed roles," he said "The KDP are the dream makers and the PUK are the peacemakers, so now they are going to divide the Parliament between them," and squeeze out other minor parties.
But voters may not want to cast their ballots for either party.
"Nobody is looking especially good at the moment," said Fanar Haddad, a senior Middle East research fellow at the National University of Singapore.
If there is a silver lining for the PUK, it is that it may now be in a position to undermine Barzani for calling the ill-fated referendum, he said. And while its coziness with Baghdad and Iran exposes the party to accusations of treason, which ring strongly in Kurdish national politics, the PUK may find itself in a position to attract Iranian or Iraqi largesse.
"If the PUK is able to pay salaries and spread some wealth then their treason just might be put aside" by some, Haddad said.
Szlanko contributed from Kirkuk, Iraq.