The euphoria last month of the Kurds who moved forward with a controversial referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan is quickly giving way to alarm as the central government of Iraq and powerful regional neighbors make good on their pledges to push back.
Predictably, conflict has flared in the oil-rich city and region of Kirkuk, long at the heart of tensions between the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government and the central authorities in Baghdad. Iraqi federal forces moved in late Sunday and were quickly within city limits and in charge of key installations in the area, including two major oil fields.
Of special concern to the Kurds, analysts noted, was Baghdad’s growing coordination with both Turkey and Iran, all keen to make sure that any independent Kurdish state is thwarted. Another concern is that US policy in the region has been so focused on fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) that other local and regional struggles have been overlooked.
Kirkuk, home to Arabs and Turkmen as well as Kurds, came under the control of the Kurdish peshmerga forces in the summer of 2014, when the Iraqi Army melted away in the face of a rapid advance by ISIS forces. It was the sun-kissed Kurdish flag rather than the black jihadist banner that finally rose triumphant over checkpoints and government installations of Kirkuk, but that did not end the dispute over who was rightly in charge of the city.
Kurdish authorities insisted on holding the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Kirkuk as well as other disputed territories that fall outside their autonomous region. The vote was vehemently rejected by Baghdad, with the Iraqi Supreme Court ruling that it was unconstitutional.
Turkey and Iran, concerned that an independent Kurdistan could inspire their own restive Kurdish minorities, also opposed it in the strongest terms and took some punitive measures.
In the conflict-prone region, only Israel stood out by voicing clear support for the Iraqi Kurds’ move, but analysts say it is unlikely to get involved if conflict ensues.
The international community largely opposed the poll even though Kurdish authorities said it was non-binding. Baghdad, however, has ruled out any dialogue with Erbil unless the referendum result is declared null. Its military offensive on energy-rich and strategic Kirkuk shows it is not willing to accept a fait accompli.
Divisions among Kurds
On Monday, the Kurdish flag was lowered at the provincial council building, signaling a shift in the balance of power that will be difficult for a large segment of Kurdish forces to stomach or reverse. But the September referendum and events in Kirkuk has also laid bare enduring divisions among Iraqi Kurds.
The opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had only supported the referendum when it became clear that it was moving forward no matter what. The quick fall of Kirkuk and limited bloodshed so far is attributed by Kurdish security officials and analysts to the withdrawal of PUK forces.
They were the dominant power in the city, and pulled out with their heavy weapons.
There have been reports of clashes and casualties as a result of the Kirkuk offensive, but no side has given a death toll. The development puts the United States, which has backed both Kurdish forces and Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS, in delicate position and raises the specter of further escalation.
The Peshmerga General Command in Erbil issued a statement saying the attack was “a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan.” It warned the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi would pay a “heavy price” for initiating the conflict.
The statement slammed PUK officials for abandoning strategic areas to the mainly Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces and what it said were Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. And it decried the use of American weapons that had been given to Iraqi forces in the context of fighting ISIS.
US Sen. John McCain was more outspoken, expressing concern over reports that Iranian-backed forces were part of the assault and over the “misuse” of US weapons. The attack on Kirkuk began two days after the Trump administration slapped new sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is influential in Iraq.
“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats – not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” Senator McCain said.
Cracks in the alliance
Analysts have long been warning that US partners in the war against ISIS in Iraq were heading for a fight, a risk that has been exacerbated by the Kurdish referendum moving forward and the near-complete defeat of ISIS in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Kurdish officials see no reason to cede territory that they helped protect from ISIS. As a Kirkuk front line commander, Kamal Kirkuki, put it to The Christian Science Monitor ahead of the referendum: “The only thing tying us to Baghdad is the fight against ISIS.”
Even though Mr. Abadi initially signaled that there would be no force used in the dispute with the KRG, Iranian-backed militias had been making threats against Kurdish peshmerga in Kirkuk in the wake of the referendum, says Ahmad Majidyar, director of the IranObserved Project at the Middle East Institute.
“(Kurdish President Masoud) Barzani didn’t think that the Baghdad government would send forces to recapture those disputed areas in Kirkuk,” says Mr. Majidyar. “The decision that the Baghdad government has taken has been taken in consultation with Iran and Turkey. That puts the Barzani leadership at a complete disadvantage.”
US officials tried to dissuade the Kurdish leadership from holding the referendum Sept. 25, but they were not successful, he adds. The main reason why this political tension is developing into a military one at a time that the US has significant presence and influence in Iraq, he says, is because Washington has focused exclusively on the fight against ISIS and overlooked political developments in Iraq and also neighboring Syria.
“It is Major General Qassem Suleimani, who is the head of Iran’s Quds force, who is mediating between the [Kurds and Baghdad] and shaping the future of Kirkuk,” he said. “It's not the United States.”
Risk of escalation
Analysts say that the fact that most of the peshmerga forces left their Kirkuk strongholds without a real fight is what prevented major bloodshed, but warn the underlying reasons that brought about this situation and the risks of escalation remain in place when neighbors are adamant to prevent an economically viable and independent Kurdistan.
Washington-based Middle East defense analyst Farzin Nadimi says that by taking Kirkuk and restoring its control over oil resources, Baghdad has increased leverage to push the Kurds into a negotiated settlement. It remains to be seen if Iraqi federal forces try to advance deeper into the Kurdish heartland.
“Iran wasted no time in condemning and taking action to oppose this referendum,” says Mr. Nadimi. “And they will continue to do so.”
While some criticize Mr. Barzani for overplaying his hand and pushing forward with the referendum rather than postponing it, others point out that no time would have been deemed auspicious by the international community to redraw the borders of the Middle East.
“Obviously they didn’t expect this level of opposition,” says Nadimi. “Iran and Turkey have had a very long history of Kurdish counterinsurgency, and they would by no means accept an independent Kurdistan on their borders that would be a model for their own Kurdish population.”