Kurdistan and Iraq, Bordering on War
Ilaria Romano 25 October 2017

It took no longer than two days to bring the territory back under the control of the Regional Government of Kurdistan at the end of 2014. In the space of 48 hours, the Iraqi army and the Hashd al-Shaabi shi’ite militia integrated into it took control of Kirkuk, it was swiftly followed by the recapture of Dibus, Makhmur, Khanaqin, Jalawla, Gwer, Bashiqa and Sinjar. These territories were taken back in the past three years from the Islamic State by the Peshmerga Kurdish forces through combat alongside the central government and its coalition with the US.

The Iraqi forces entered the city of Kirkuk on the 16th of October, after having taken control of the nearby K1 military base and of the Baba Gurgur oil rigs as well as the airport, the roads and the primary infrastructure. The advance took place on the previous night from Tuz Khurmatu, where shi’ite and Peshmerga militia had already previously engaged in combat. The Hashd al-Shaabi would not have found any obstacles along the main roads to Tuz Khurmatu and Al Award as the Kurdish positions there had by then already been abandoned.

Tensions had already risen to the surface the previous week in what, just a few days ago, was considered the fifth Kurdish-controlled territory – that of the Kirkuk province, in which Dibis had been the central Peshmerga command base. General Kemal Kirkuki, in charge of the division of the territory, had visited all of the sites on the 13th of October which had once been the frontlines in the war against daesh. These locations later became the contact line between the Peshmerga forces and those of the Iraqi Shi’ites which, until then, hadn’t resulted in any friction. The general reiterated his hopes that there wouldn’t be an escalation of tension nor of violence but, in such an event, the Kurdish forces would defend themselves and have every right to do so, for their own sake and that of the civilians. “They have already fled once when having been faced with Isis, leaving behind their equipment in doing so,” said Kirkuki “who can guarantee that they won’t do it again when faced with a new threat?”

Iraqi and Shiite forces advanced into Kirkuk three days later and, in just a few hours, social media and primary TV channels were showing them waving their flags and removing those of Kurdistan. Images were shown of a pickup truck in flames and of a journalist attempting to distance two injured people from it, one of which was on the verge of death.

There had certainly been clashes. With numerous victims nonetheless. However, no effort was made on behalf of the central government to officially announce the precise number of deaths and injuries. Regardless of the casualties, when a city with a population of a million ‘falls’ in just a few hours, it must have meant that the resistance was minimal and that there was no plan to prevent such a fall.

It is from here that the controversial debate about what had happened during the hours preceding the conflict takes form. This is when the US were no longer able to ignore the movements of the Baghdadi troops. It is when Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian al-Quds militia, met with the heads of the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in Sulaimaniya, with whom he allegedly struck a deal: to not pose any resistance to them in exchange for the reopening of the airport in the Autonomous Region’s second city and for the payment of the Kurdish militia wages.

President Masoud Barzani’s spokesperson was quick to announce that the abandonment of the southern Kirkuk positions was due to internal issues within the PUK leadership, which was dominant in the city. It is certain that Iran’s influence, even considering the integration of shi’ite militia into the Iraqi government, is no longer a hypothesis but a fact. General Suleimani has been a leading figure of the Iraqi-Iranian relations for years: from the war in 1980 to that in the Gulf in 1992, from when he led the shi’ite militia against Saddam Hussein to when he supported the armed forces opposing the American invasion. Integrating the shi’ite militia into the army has given enormous power to these groups and to the Iranian presence within the Iraqi territory where the PMF, the Popular Mobilization Forces, have simultaneously worked to create security whilst producing insecurity.

The signs that the shi’ite militia would not be able guarantee unity for the country following the war were clear even before the very first advance into Mosul; today’s facts can confirm this. The bold move of holding the September 25th referendum certainly didn’t favour the dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil. However, the intention to reinstate Kurdistan back to being the three provinces of the autonomous region is now a recent conception but, rather, seems to be the symptom of an attempt to silence any form of opposition, even at the cost of never being able to form any national unity that is not on a sectarian basis and of a territorial cleansing which translates itself into tens of thousands of displaced people. The most recent being the approximately 100,000 Kurds from Kirkuk which have filled Erbil’s Ashti 2 displaced persons camp whose numbers had been diminishing since the returns of the Christians to Qaraqosh.

The strongest response to the Kurdish vote, after the closure of the airport to international flights, the threats of an economic block and of a further isolation of the region, seems to have come from Baghdad’s military. In the meantime the parliamentary elections scheduled for November 1st in Kurdistan have been postponed, as declared by the Independent Electoral Commission in light of these recent developments. The deadlines for the registration of candidates have since expired without anyone having put themselves forward.

On the other hand, the Barzani government seems to have overrated its negotiating capabilities with Iraq and its relations with neighbours and allies. Now that the Islamic State has lost a great deal of its territory the common ground on which these forces, which could never really trust each other, could stand has paradoxically diminished.

From the United States’ perspective not taking a side in this conflict, although counterintuitive, not only means de facto tacitly supporting Baghdad but also allows them to keep a close eye on Iran’s indirect movements, without admitting that the Hashd al-Shaabi are working for Iranian interests in Iraq whilst being armed by America.

On the 18th of October, the Iraqi prime minister Abadi made a ‘mission accomplished’ statement regardless of the continuing military escalation. The fighting has now moved to Altun Kupri, a town with a population of little over 9,000 on the border between Kirkuk province and that of Erbil – 50km from the Autonomous Region’s capital. Amongst the Kurds there are those who recall 1975, when Saddam enacted an ethnic cleansing and a process of ‘arabization’ in Kirkuk and Khanaqin.

This has resulted in an irreparable fracture, a definitive blow to any shred of trust felt in regards to political apparatuses, the international coalition, the possibility of peaceful coexistence in these lands exhausted by war, abandonment and recapture. In the meantime, the Krg is signing a deal allowing the Russian oil giant Rosneft to explore and pilot produce in the region; Baghdad is asking BP, British Petroleum, to further develop the famous 2013 deal for the Avana and Baba Gurgur oil wells which has not since been closed due to the presence of Isis, followed by that of the Kurds.

Credit Marc-Antoine Pelaez / AFP

Translated by Liam MacGregor-Hastie