Just after midnight, in the early hours of Oct. 16, the Iraqis attacked from the points that the Iranian general had identified, and by 8 p.m. — despite fierce resistance by some of the peshmerga — the Iraqis were taking over the city as Kurdish officials and commanders fled. Three peshmerga sources, including two majors, were adamant that they had seen Persian-speaking soldiers wearing the uniforms of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) alongside the Iraqis.
How the Kurdish peshmerga were defeated so fast is disputed, but lack of ammunition and the longstanding rivalry between the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) played an important part. “I fought for four hours and we did not allow the [PMU] to come forward,” said Maj. Nihad, a peshmerga commander in his mid 30s who fought south of the city near the Shiite town of Taza. “We could not continue simply because we had no more ammunition.”
As the Iraqis took control of the city, thousands of Kurdish civilians and peshmerga fled to Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. “They sold us, the [Kurdish] officials sold us,” one peshmerga told Al-Monitor in Qarahanjir, just to the east of Kirkuk, as thousands of desperate and bewildered Kurdish civilians drove their vehicles toward Sulaimaniyah. Kurdish officials could be seen fleeing through the hills in their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Angry crowds along the road near Sulaimaniyah jeered at the officials.
Immediately after their collapse in Kirkuk, KDP and PUK officials accused each other of treason and traded barbs. The KDP accused one wing of the PUK of reaching a secret agreement with Baghdad to sell out the Kurds, while PUK officials said Massoud Barzani, the de facto president of the Kurdistan Region, is reaping what he sowed for his obstinacy in going ahead with the independence referendum against the advice of the Kurds’ closest allies. The two sides also accused each other of looting Kirkuk’s oil and siphoning off millions of dollars in the process.