How Baghdad struck back at a declaration of independence in Iraqi Kurdistan
On Monday, Iraqi forces moved swiftly to occupy the city of Kirkuk and nearby areas including oilfields, taking the territory from the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government.
Following the defeat of the Islamic State in northern Iraq — in which the Iraqi Army, Shia Popular Mobilization Units, and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga were on the same side — and less than three weeks after almost 93% of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence, Baghdad and supporting Shia militias reasserted their authority. Troops took down Kurdish flags and hosted Iraqi ones, posters of KRG President Masoud Barzani, and soldiers posed in the office vacated by the Kirkuk Governor.
Balsam Mustafa sets out the background to the conflict:
Kirkuk, a name whose pronunciation indicates its Aramaic origin, is as old as the 3rd millennium BC. Its ancient citadel, on the east bank of the Tigris, has seen the rise and fall of the Akkadian, the Assyrian, the Parthian, Salgus, and Ottoman empires, as well as the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century.
Each of these rulers brought demographic shifts. However, today’s Kirkuk was forged in the heightening of ethnic identities after World War I and the formation of the new Iraqi State. There were tensions between Kurds and Turkmens on the one hand, and between Kurds, local governments and the British mandate on the other. They were fed by oil, with the Iraqi Petroleum Company’s discovery of the Baba Gurgur field, and further changes in population.
Clashes between Turkmens and Kurds in the 1950s were succeeded by the 1960s-1990s Arabization campaigns of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein. They built upon pre-modern history to bring to the fore three competing narratives. For the Kurds, Kirkuk is the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”. For Iraqi Arabs, the city is “a microcosm of the state”, a “small Iraq”, with a pluralistic and diverse identity that transcends centuries. For Turkmen and the Chaldeo-Assyrians, this is their “ancestral capital”, although they still largely link this with a united Iraqi state.
From 2003 to Now
After the 2003 war until June 2014, Kirkuk was a province under the administration of the central Iraqi government, represented by a provincial committee jointly run by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.
Under the 2005 Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan was recognized as a federal region within the state of Iraq. Kirkuk, claimed by both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, was labelled as “disputed”. Article 140 called for normalization, with implementation by the end of 2007 through a census and “a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens”. Both ambiguous and ambitious, the process never took place. Unrealistic in such a short period, the plan collapsed under bargains between Shia and Kurdish politicians serving their own interests.
Following the dramatic ascendancy of the Islamic State in June 2014, with areas around Kirkuk falling to the militants,
Iraqi troops and Kurdish pehsmerga forces collaborated to reclaim the lost territory. But this was not a reversion to the precarious status quo: the peshmerga moved into Kirkuk, lifting the Kurdistan flag on the provincial building, and took control of oilfields to begin independent export. The Iraqi Government responding by cutting off the KRG’s share of the federal budget, and accused the Kurds of welcoming the Turkish Kurdish insurgents of the PKK in Kirkuk and the town of Sinjar.
The Referendum and Baghdad’s Response
The defeat of ISIS in Iraq’s second city Mosul this summer revived the prospect of reconciliation. Both Baghdad and Erbil hailed the military success as a turning point in their political relationship. The Iraqi Government agreed to re-activate the process under the 2005 Constitution, once the Islamic State was completely vanquished.
But then KRG President Masoud Barzani, after years of dangling the possibility, followed through with the independence referendum. He defied Baghdad’s claim that it was unconstitutional and went farther by including Kirkuk in the vote.
While some saw the initiative as an attempt to dampen objections to Barzani’s authoritarian rule — with accusations of corruption, a broken economy, and tribalism — the outcome put Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a difficult position. Now the Government would be seen as not only facing Barzani but the “will” of almost all Iraqi Kurds.
Abadi called for negotiations, but only on condition that the referendum’s result was cancelled. Unsurprisingly, the KRG refused and Baghdad declared its control of airports and borders. The Iraqi Parliament demanded that Abadi act to retake Kirkuk, and the Prime Minister finally set a deadline of October 14 for the Kurdish peshmerga to retreat to their positions before June 2014. Although reports circulated of discussions between Baghdad and Kurdish authorities to avert conflict, Barzani proclaimed that “borders were drawn by blood and should be taken by blood”.
Spurred by victory over ISIS in Hawija, 45 km (28 miles) to the west, Abadi authorized the offensive for Kirkuk: “We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”
On Monday, Iraqi troops — led by counter-terrorism units, and the army’s 9th armoured brigade, as well as Federal police and Shia PMUs — advanced. The peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan withdrew, although there were clashes with some groups linked to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. Arabs and Turkmens welcomed the forces, but hundreds of Kurds fled to Erbil.
If the KDP planned resistance, this soon evaporated. On Tuesday their peshmerga left the area from Sinjar in the north to the Nineveh Plains including the Mosul Dam and in Salaheddin and Diyala Provinces. Iraqi forces were now at the 2003 borders, rather than those of June 2014.
Accused by some of “treason”, Barzani finally commented yesterday. He insisted that “the blood of martyrs…[and] the loud voices you raised for the independence of Kurdistan that you sent to all nations and world countries will not be wasted now or ever”. However, he acknowledged the withdrawal to the June 2014 borders.
Leading PUK members, including Iraqi MP Alaa Talabani, the daughter of the recently-deceased former KRG President Jalal Talabani, said the withdrawal was part of an agreement with Baghdad for Kurdish interests. She then jabbed at Barzani: “We won’t sacrifice for the sake of stolen oil fields, whose money went to the pockets and accounts of individuals.”
Talabani indicated Iranian involvement through her mention of the role of Qassim Sulaimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who advised the Kurds to reach an accord with Baghdad.
However, other members denied any agreement, pointing to the deepening divisions not only between PUK and KDP but also within the PUK.
Meanwhile, Abadi is reaping the benefit of his assertive move. Iraqi President Fuad Massoum praised the measures as constitutional, calling all other parties to engage in dialogue. Many Iraqis credit the Prime Minister for acting in accordance with the Constitution, with a relative lack of bloodshed which had been feared. He has been further bolstered by regional and international powers who were critical of the Kurdish referendum.
Is this an opportunity for a new beginning for Iraq or is it a tenuous short-term gain ? Barzani’s latest in a series of miscalculations does not guarantee stability. The KRG leader is unlikely to be pushed aside, and he could try to regain political ground with another challenge to Baghdad. Even if he does not, division between Kurdish parties and ongoing disputes between Baghdad and Erbil are likely to block any return to the 2005 process, let alone a notion of “unity”.
Nor can success in Kirkuk, following success in Mosul, long sweep away other issues for Abadi: corruption, mismanagement, and political factionalism are albatrosses for Baghdad as well as Erbil.