A Kurdish flag has replaced the Iraqi flag flying over the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, in a clear symbol of how Iraq’s Kurds have benefited from this week's turmoil.
Kurdish peshmerga forces moved into areas long contested with Iraq’s central government, ostensibly to protect ethnic Kurds after Iraqi forces fled in the face of a swift offensive by Sunni jihadists. But no prize is greater than Kirkuk, a mixed-ethnicity city long viewed by Kurds as their cultural capital.
Now, after years of bickering with Baghdad and clashes with the Iraqi Army, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken full control in a matter of hours – and Baghdad has been powerless to prevent it. A de facto partition of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite regions is emerging.
“You can call it a gift from heaven for the Kurdish leadership,” says a Kurdish analyst in northern Iraq who asked not to be named, speaking about the stunning military offensive this week by Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
“From the Kurdish perspective, the threat and challenge that ISIS poses is serious, but [also] presents an opportunity to solidify Kurdish control over the disputed territories,” says the Kurdish analyst. “This is definitely a very good opportunity for the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] to pressure Baghdad.”
The peshmerga – whose name in Kurdish translates to “those who face death” – are one of the best organized fighting forces in Iraq. Its professional units were honed by the insurgency against Saddam Hussein and the effort to protect the Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq since 1991, as well as their own internal battles. They pose a much greater obstacle to ISIS than the fractured, demoralized Iraqi Army, which largely turned tail as ISIS pushed toward Baghdad this week.
“Even if they put together all their forces, the ISIS wouldn’t be able to fight more than two hours or control any part of Kirkuk,” a high-level Kurdish security official today told Rudaw, a Kurdish media agency.
Rudaw also quoted Brig. Sarhad Qadir, the chief of Kirkuk police, saying Kurdish forces had acted on intelligence days ago, raiding ISIS bases there and detaining some members. “We try to foil any plans against Kirkuk in advance,” he said.
No bailing out of Baghdad
Soon after the Tuesday fall of Mosul to ISIS, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said, “We can push back the terrorists … and there would be close cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together to flush out these foreign fighters.”
But tensions between the KRG and Baghdad have run strong for years, heightened by the KRG’s recent bid to export oil – with proceeds going directly to the KRG, not the Iraqi treasury. And Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not paid Baghdad’s portion of the KRG’s budget since February.
Kirkuk and its nearby oil fields have been contested since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003. Baghdad, in a decision backed by the US during its eight-year occupation, has repeatedly refused the Kurds’ request for a referendum on whether Kirkuk should come under KRG jurisdiction.
“At the beginning, there was some hope that the Kurds would bail out the Iraqi government in Mosul. It’s become very clear they have no interest in doing that,” says Nate Rabkin, who is based in Tel Aviv and is managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a newsletter produced by Uticensis Risk Services.
Kurdish leaders deny they are being opportunistic, insisting they are helping Baghdad keep control. But as the peshmerga settle in to abandoned Army bases, there appears to be little coordination.
'Breakdown of trust'
Cooperation between the two sides virtually ceased the last two to three years, except to avoid gun battles. The “breakdown of trust” indicates that the territorial disputes have trumped battling insurgency, says Rabkin.
Yet while the KRG is now in a better bargaining position and may take satisfaction in the humiliating retreat of the Iraqi Army, it has also been unsettled by broader strategic implications.
“This is a scary crisis for the KRG, because ... they have an ISIS base on their border for as long as this goes on, and they don’t really have the ability to clean it up,” adds Rabkin.
On top of that, the exodus of displaced Arabs risks creating a flow of people between the KRG and ISIS-held areas that could allow for possible infiltration, he says: "That’s a nightmare situation for them, of people going back and forth all the time, between this pseudo-caliphate and the KRG."
Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the KRG, wrote in a tweet: “Terror has no religion, sect, or nationality. A threat to all of us – must face it together; across Mideast region and international community.”
'Happy as they are'
But the divisions of the past years have taken a toll.
“The way that a lot of Kurds see it, after these tensions with Baghdad, this is not really the Kurds’ fight,” says the Kurdish analyst. “This is Maliki’s fight. He’s been defiant toward the KRG; if he wants to fight, go and fight himself.”
KRG President Masoud Barzani said in a statement that Kurdish peshmerga forces should not go beyond the disputed territories, which are Kurdish-dominated.
A senior Kurdish official told Rudaw that launching a fight against the Kurds too would be a "strategic error" by ISIS. There have been reports that the peshmerga chief was nearly killed in an IED attack on his convoy near Kirkuk, as well as reports of skirmishes.
“So the order for the time being – and I saw this at the checkpoint – is keep your ground and stay where you are. I think if [the peshmerga] are not attacked, they won’t go any further,” says the analyst, speaking from the last Kurdish checkpoint. The next was controlled by ISIS, he says.
“There seems to be some understanding – and by this I am not implying any meetings or negotiations – [that] ISIS are on their side of the checkpoint and the Kurds are at the next checkpoint, so there is this buffer zone between the two sides.… For the time being it seems that everybody is happy where they are."