Spearhead Issue Brief – 02.11.2017

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

In a remarkable turnaround of fate, Iraqi military forces and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) took less than 48 hours to completely outmaneuver the famed Peshmergha warriors, in Iraq’s first internal clash over the disputed city of Kirkuk, since the ISIL stronghold had weakened in Iraq. In less than a week, the federal government of Iraq had built up a relentless momentum; Bashiqa, Khanaqin and Sinjar, were a few of the most strategic Kurdish populated cities under the Kurdistan Regional Government’s control, that were seized back by the Iraqi forces in a mass capitulation of the Kurdish forces. The Kurds, still reeling from the sting of defeat and the loss of their autonomous reign, feel they had been deeply betrayed. Not as much by foreign interlocutors and alliances of Iraq with Iran and Turkey, a tri-parte opposition that has resisted the Kurdish cause for years, but by the fact that their strategic gains in the civil war against IS in the past decade have been reversed due to the miscalculations of their own political leadership.

The clash between the two factions over the oil-rich disputed territory, Kirkuk, with its oil revenues central to Iraqi proposition, comes barely a few months after the last bastion of ISIL forces were declared to have been eliminated from Iraqi territory. Barely a year ago, images of Kurdish led-YPG forces, the battle-hardened Peshmerga fighting alongside deployed Iraqi troops in Mosul made rounds in international media. A measured contrast to Syria’s conflict at the time that was still largely divided in civil leadership on ethno-sectarian lines. More notably, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), an autonomous regional ‘state within state’ styled bloc, with little intrusion from Iraq’s federal government since 2003, was the epicenter of the Kurds – 30 million of them spread out across the Middle East.

It was in September, however, that the KRG spearheaded by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under President Barzani decided to go through with a unilateral, nonbinding referendum to the growing condemnation and disbelief of the Iraqi federal government. In hindsight, what ultimately set the Iraq-Kurd conflict off was that the referendum, disputed as it may have been, had seen the Kurds over-reach beyond their stated regional power bloc and had included the town of Kurdish populated strategic Sinjar and the oil-rich Kirkuk in the referendum that was set to decide a vote on Kurdistans unilateral secession from Iraq. The Kurd’s claims to these cities was premised in the fact that Kurdish forces had liberated these areas from ISIL stronghold two years ago, when the Iraqi army was militarily incapable to fight back ISIS forces and had retreated.

Barzani going ahead with the independence referendum despite global disapproval of his measures, has not gone down well. A popular narrative to the development espouses that Barzani’s move actually paved the way for the caveat the federal power had hoped for – a lawful excuse to intervene by Abadi. One that he desperately needed, to take back decisive control of the borders of the state and prepare him for the general elections of Spring 2018. An imminent civil war in tow, 48 anti-climatic hours later, the Iraqi army took over Kirkuk, and Baghdad immediately declared that the Kurdish independence is “a thing of the past” and the controversial referendum should be forgotten, calling for dialogue based on Iraq’s national constitution.