Kurdish aspirations to annex the city of Kirkuk in Tamim province are well known. Less so is the Kurds’ goal of adding areas of Salahaddin, Diyala and Ninewa, which they believe are part of a Greater Kurdistan. Currently, Kurdish Peshmerga militias occupy sections of all three provinces where Kurds live. This summer, these plans came to a head when Baghdad launched a security operation in Diyala.
Operation Promise Of Good and the Khanaqin District of Diyala
In mid-July 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched Operation Promise of Good in Diyala. By August 10, Iraqi forces reached the northern district of the province along the Iranian border known as Khanaqin where the 4,000-man 34th Peshmerga Brigade was based. When the Iraqi army moved near the town of Jalawlaa in Khanaqin, the mayor warned that their presence could lead to conflict with the Peshmerga there. The central government in turn called for the Kurdish militia to withdraw within 24 hours. The Kurds refused saying they were protecting their people in the district, and that they only answered to Kurdish authorities, not Baghdad. The showdown was a stark example of the tensions between Prime Minister Maliki who wants more centralized control of the country, and the Kurds that have pushed for regional autonomy.
The situation remained tense while a deal was brokered and then fell apart. At first, Kurds and Baghdad issued conflicting statements claiming one side was going to withdraw and the other would stay. An agreement was eventually worked out on August 16 that the Kurds would leave, Khanaqin would be turned over to Baghdad’s control, and the 34th Peshmerga Brigade would become part of the 15th Iraqi Mountain Division in Kurdistan. The Kurds started pulling out, but when the Iraqi Army moved into the town of Qurat Tabba another controversy erupted. The Iraqi forces evicted Kurdish parties and Peshmerga from government owned buildings to the protest of Kurdish officials. One even threatened a confrontation between the two militaries. On August 26, protests were staged in Khanaqin against the Iraqi forces, which led them to withdraw, leaving the future of the area up in the air.
The confrontation in Diyala also played out in Kurdistan and Baghdad. The Security and Defense Committee of parliament said that all security forces should be under Baghdad’s control, even the Peshmerga in Kurdistan. Another group of politicians called for the Kurds to withdraw from Mosul as well. The Kurds on the other hand, were suspicious that the government would ask their forces to be removed from all areas outside of Kurdistan like Kirkuk, and not let them return. That would threaten their idea of Greater Kurdistan, which envisions the region expanding from 15,400 square miles currently to 30,000, almost doubling in size. Some were even afraid that Baghdad would seek to exert control of Kurdistan itself.
The Kurds have occupied sections of Diyala province since 2003. Currently, Peshmerga forces are in Khanaqin, Kafri, Klara and Jamajaml. In February 2008, the Kurds made all four an administrative district of Kurdistan. Khanaqin is of strategic importance because it is the second largest oil district in northern Iraq after Kirkuk. The Kurds are planning on exploring for more oil there as well.
Beforehand, the United Nations had been trying to mediate the disputed districts. The U.N. suggested that the Kurdish areas of Diyala and one other region in Iraq should be turned over to provincial control in June 2008, while two others would become part of Kurdistan. Many did not seem to like the U.N.’s proposal, with 95 parliamentarians saying they were against it, along with 120 tribal figures. The suggested compromise would be a break with the Iraqi constitution that placed Khanaqin under Article 140. It and other disputed areas like Kirkuk were to have a census, then a vote on whether they would join Kurdistan or not by the end of 2007. That date was extended to the end of July 2008, but neither deadline was met. The deadlocked talks allowed the Kurds to maintain control of the areas, creating a de facto Greater Kurdistan on the ground.
While the Kurds have been one of the pillars of the governing alliance, they have often disagreed with Maliki. The Kurds have signed a series of independent oil deals that the Oil Ministry has declared illegal. The Kurds were the ones that torpedoed the recent provincial election law. The Kurds have also been pushing a federal system for Iraq, while Maliki has been trying to centralize military and political power in his hands. Since his security crackdowns in early 2008, the Prime Minister has been emboldened to claim government control of all areas of Iraq. That has meant the move against the Sons of Iraq, and now a dispute with the Kurds over Kurdish occupied areas in Diyala. It appeared that Baghdad had won when the Peshmerga agreed to withdraw, but the protests, and apparent pull out of Iraqi forces now puts the situation in limbo once again. Whatever happens to the area in the end could be a harbinger of what vision of Iraqi governance prevails.
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- “Demo in Diala against Iraqi army forces,” 8/27/08
- “Iraqi forces withdrew from Khanaqin – mayor,” 8/26/08
- “Kurdish official condemns Iraqi army raid on Peshmerga HQ,” 8/24/08
- “Military units should be under central govt. control,” 8/19/08
- “Suicide blast in Jalawlaa leaves 70 casualties,” 8/26/08
- “Tensions between Iraqi and Peshmerga forces in Khanaqeen,” 8/12/08
- “Withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Khanqeen asserts security in Diala – MP,” 8/13/08