Iraq’s politicians specialize in brinkmanship where they up the ante against each other taking it right to the edge of confrontation. The country is facing another one of those moments in the aftermath of the September 25 independence referendum in Kurdistan. Before the vote, President Massoud Barzani and other Kurdish leaders attacked the central government for being Baathist law breakers, and said that all the disputed areas the Peshmerga occupied would take part in the election. Since then Baghdad has replied in kind with various politicians demanding retaliation. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has been trying to respond in his own way, while holding off the angry members of the parliament. That saw a huge escalation on October 12-13 when the premier sent troops into the center of Kirkuk demanding the Peshmerga withdraw.
Tensions were high in October as various Kurdish politicians and media outlets, mostly associated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) warned of a looming confrontation with Baghdad. The Kurdish Security Council for example, claimed that the Iraqi forces were going to seize oil fields and military bases in Kirkuk. The Peshmerga command added that the federal forces were going to attack the Kurds in the province and blamed Iran as being behind the move. The KDP media outlet Rudaw reported that Quds Force commander General Qasim Suleimani told Prime Minister Haidar Abadi that he had the backing of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These stories prompted a rally by the Peshmerga within Kirkuk city, and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Vice President Kosrat Rasul sent 6,000 more Kurdish fighters to the province. Amongst this chorus of sabre rattling there were few voices of calm. One was southern Kirkuk Peshmerga commander Wasta Rasul who said he had not seen any threatening moves by the Iraqi forces that would prompt the KRG Security Council’s warning. Since the September referendum, Kurdish officials have been voicing surprise at Baghdad’s anger at the vote, while also warning that things could escalate. That reached a crescendo on October 12 as many KRG politicians were talking like war was about to break out even while commanders on the ground in Kirkuk didn’t think it was that serious. What they did have right was that the central government was going to make a move in the province.
Starting on October 12, Iraqi forces began demanding that the Peshmerga withdraw from positions they occupied in the summer of 2014. The Hashd sent a letter to the Peshermga to vacate a military base in the province in just two hours. A Badr Hashd commander, Mohammed Zain Abedin told Iraq Oil Report that the prime minister wanted the security forces to return to Kirkuk city. Later in the day, a column of the army, the Golden Division and a brigade from the Al Abbas Division of the Hashd, which is loyal to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani crossed Kurdish lines in south Kirkuk. The Kurds almost fired upon them, but the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) called Abadi asking for 48 hours for the different Kurdish factions to consult with each other. A local councilman was quoted in the Washington Post that he mediated between the different sides to defuse the situation as well. October 13, those same forces moved into the Taza and Bashir areas, while the Peshmerga withdrew in what seemed like a local deal with the PUK. Kurdish media said that roughly 72 square miles were vacated. In 2014, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) collapsed after Mosul fell, and gave up positions throughout Kirkuk without a fight. The Peshmerga moved into those areas as they claimed most of them as the disputed territories. After the referendum, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding that Abadi as commander and chief re-assert the government’s control over those contested areas, especially in Kirkuk. This was the premier’s attempt to push back against both the KRG and those MPs who want to punish the Kurds. This is a tough balance because Abadi doesn’t want to appear to be weak, but he also does not want things to blow up into a full-fledged battle with the Peshmerga. He was on a razor’s edge with this move as it almost led to a gun battle in another classic example of Iraqi brinkmanship.
Prime Minister Abadi also reportedly passed along a series of demands to the KRG. Iraq’s President Fuad Masum visited Sulaymaniya where he gave the PUK a message from the premier. That consisted of six points including turning over Kirkuk’s airport, military bases and oil fields along with IS fighters that surrendered to the Kurds, and removing Kirkuk Governor Karim. The PUK controls the provincial government, and has been less confrontational than the KDP. PUK Peshmerga commander Rasul for instance, stated that the constitution made Baghdad and Irbil joint administrators of the disputed areas, and that he had no problem with the ISF returning to the Avana and Bai Hassan oil fields, which they secured before 2014. Those two fields however, are currently occupied by forces loyal to the KDP. Again, the premier is pushing to return to the pre-2014 ante in Kirkuk. His six points may also be just an opening stage in talks with the KRG since he has ruled out negotiations over larger issues after the referendum.
The Kurds now have 48 hours to respond to the prime minister. Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim who is from the PUK but appears to have thrown in with the KDP over the referendum denied that the Peshmerga had pulled back from any areas and claimed Iranian-backed Hashd within the ISF were responsible for the escalation. The Secretary General of the Peshmerga Ministry Jabbar Yawar repeated Karim’s claim by saying that no official request had been made by Baghdad to withdraw in Kirkuk. An adviser to KRG President Massoud Barzani said that the Kurds had reinforced their positions and called on Abadi to remove the Hashd, again trying to paint this as a move by the Shiite groups rather than the central government. KRG Premier Nechirvan Barzani called on the international community and Ayatollah Ali Sistani to intervene. This was just another example of how the Kurdish leadership miscalculated the repercussions of the referendum. Beforehand people like President Barzani accused Baghdad of being Baathist law breakers. Afterward he called for talks with the central government as if he hadn’t inflamed the situation. They continue to act surprised by the Abadi’s moves, while attacking him at the same time.
The Iraqis are not alone in this situation as the Americans are also involved. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the U.S. is working to defuse tensions. The State Department is in the lead, but U.S. units are on the ground with both the ISF and Peshmerga. Hopefully they can play a constructive role as both sides are pushing things dangerously close to the edge.
Since September 25, the rhetoric coming out of Baghdad and Irbil has only escalated. Arab politicians and Prime Minister Abadi have wanted to retaliate against the Kurds, some more than others. The KRG has called for talks about independence, while increasingly claiming that the central government wants to go to war, and is being driven by Iran to do so. There have been few voices calling for calm. Some in the PUK leadership have been an exception. They have been more open to dialogue and helped stop a gun battle breaking out in Kirkuk when the Iraqi forces first started making a move. Things are still very tense, and a small local incident could quickly get out of control. Iraqis have played at brinkmanship before and been able to step back at the last moment, but there’s only so many times they can play that game before getting burned. Iraqi politicians need to show some leadership and stop pushing their agendas before things blow up in their faces. Michael Knights argued that the two sides could negotiate a form of joint administration over Kirkuk, something that PUK Peshmerga commander Rasul seemed open to. There needs to be a will in Baghdad and Irbil however to accomplish that.
AIN, “Turkman official: Abadi gave the Peshmerga 48 hours to withdraw from areas in Kirkuk,” 10/13/17
Al Baghdadiya News, “Baghdad … Parliament authorizes the government to arrest Barzani,” 9/27/17
BBC, “Iraqi Kurds send reinforcements to Kirkuk amid army ‘threats,’” 10/13/17
Chmaytelli, Maher, “Iraq’s Kurds beef up, move back defense line around oil-rich Kirkuk,” Reuters, 10/13/17
Hussein, Mohammed, Van Heuvelen, Ben, Tahir, Rawaz, Kullab, Samya, Al-Najar, Kamaran, Hashid-Peshmerga battles near Kirkuk raise specter of war,” Iraq Oil Report, 10/12/17
Ibrahim, Abdallah, “Iraq forces retake positions from Kurds in disputed Kirkuk,” Agence France Presse, 10/13/17
Iraq Broadcast Network, “Araji: Federal Forces Redeployed In Kirkuk To The Borders Of June 9,” 10/13/17
Iraq Newspaper, “Iraqi Newspaper Reporter: Abbas Group of the Popular Crowd Enters The Taza And Bashir District As The Iraqi Forces Begin A Military Operation South Of Kirkuk City,” 10/13/17
Al Jazeera, “Kurds on high alert as Iraqi forces mass near Kirkuk,” 10/13/17
Knights, Michael, “U.S. Priorities in the Kirkuk Standoff,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 10/13/17
Kullab, Samya and Tahir, Rawaz, “Q&A: Mohammed Zain Abedin, Hashid commander in Kirkuk,” Iraq Oil Report, 10/13/17
- “Q&A: Wasta Rasool, Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk,” Iraq Oil Report, 10/13/17
Al Mada, “Unannounced meeting between Baghdad and Irbil to dampen the atmosphere and overcome the repercussions of the referendum,” 10/3/17
Al Mirbad, “Talabani’s wife calls on Iraqi forces and Peshmerga to exercise restraint,” 10/12/17
Morris, Loveday and Salim, Mustafa, “Iraqi forces demand Kurdish troops’ withdrawal from Kirkuk area,” Washington Post, 10/13/17
Mostafa, Nehal, “Peshmerga: Baghdad did not grant troops 48 hours to leave Kirkuk,” Iraqi News, 10/13/17
Reuters, “Mattis says U.S. working to ensure situation around Kirkuk does not escalate,” 10/13/17
Rudaw, “Abadi, Hashd demand PUK hand over sites in Kirkuk: Masum delivers message,” 10/13/17
- “Peshmerga Command: ‘Foreign-backed’ Iraq army, Shiite forces prepare to attack Kirkuk,” 10/13/17
- “President Barzani and Iraqi speaker Jabouri agree to dialogue with open agenda,” 10/8/17
Shafaaq News, “Heavily armed Peshmerga reinforcements near Kirkuk,” 10/13/17
Al Sumaria, “Peshmerga: Popular crowd demanded that we evacuate our headquarters south Kirkuk within two hours,” 10/13/17
Szlanko, Balint, “Kurdish forces withdraw from edges of disputed Iraqi region,” Associated Press, 10/13/17