At the end of August 2011, a contingent of Kurdish peshmerga moved into the Khanaqin district in northeastern Diyala province. The Kurdistan Regional Government claimed that the Kurdish residents of the area were under attacks by insurgents, and that the security forces were doing nothing about it. While that was the official cause of the move, the reason was the Kurds’ longstanding hope to annex the district.
On September 22, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Massoud Barzani travelled to Khanaqin. There he gave a speech saying that the district was Kurdish. The President went on to state that the peshmerga would not be withdrawing from the district, and promised to improve the services there. The Iraqi National Movement immediately criticized his comments. A politician from the party said that Barzani’s statements were inappropriate, claiming that the Kurds simply wanted to annex Khanaqin, which is part of the disputed territories within Iraq, after United States forces withdrew. He went on to warn that the peshmerga’s presence might eventually lead to a civil war. This was in line with earlier remarks by the list, which criticized the deployment of peshmerga to the province from the beginning. The National Movement has a nationalist stance, and has opposed Kurdish aspirations over the disputed areas of the country. The party also controls the governorship, and would be against breaking off a large chunk of the governorate. The Kurds on the other hand, have coveted Khanaqin since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam, and have repeatedly said that it is a historically Kurdish area that should be annexed to the KRG. This has not really been an issue in the last few years, but has been rekindled by the recent deployment of peshmerga back into the district.
|Peshmerga in Diyala
At the end of August, two battalions of peshmerga moved into Khanaqin. 1,300 were initially deployed, but eventually there will be 2,400 fighters in the district. They were escorted into their new positions by American and Iraqi forces, and started joint patrols with the Iraqi army shortly afterward. That showed that the central government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acquiesced in the movement of peshmerga. The premier is currently playing a delicate balancing act with his erstwhile allies and rivals. The Kurds play an important part in this drama, having supported Maliki’s second term, but demanding action on their long-standing issues. One of those is dealing with the disputed territories like Khanaqin. While the prime minister has been slow on moving on his promises to the Kurds, it appears he was willing to allow this deployment of peshmerga to appease the KRG.
The Kurds claimed they had to secure the area because of attacks upon the local population, while others disagreed. Kurdish officials said they didn’t trust the security forces in Diyala, saying that they were derelict in their duties, claimed that Kurds were fleeing parts of the district because of attacks, and that they were facing a new Arabization program, quoting statistics that showed a dramatic increase in the Arab population. The mayor of Jalawla for example, claimed that his area was now 80% Arab, and only ten out of 36 villages were Kurdish. The Kurds’ argument was immediately disputed. A local security official said that violence in the area was no different than the rest of Diyala, while the chief of the Armed Forces, General Babaker Zebari, who is a Kurd himself, rejected the criticism of the local security forces. He said that the 5th Army Division, which was in Diyala, was one of the best. A review of security statistics did not show much violence or an increase in incidents in Diyala in the weeks preceding the peshmerga deployment. It seems that the Kurds were simply using that excuse to achieve their larger goal of re-establishing their military control of Khanaqin. The district is already administered by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the peshmerga would solidify the Kurds’ claim to the area. Since 2003, the KRG has been making moves like these to create facts on the ground to bolster their hold on the disputed territories, and increase their case for annexing them.
The peshmerga originally moved into Kahanqin in 2003 during the U.S. invasion. They were there for the next fives years until they were confronted by Prime Minister Maliki. In 2008, he sent security forces into Khanaqin in a symbolic gesture meant to bolster his nationalist image. He wanted to show that the central government had the final say in the country, and thus forced the Kurds to nominally concede to this by withdrawing their forces from the district. The Kurds have since said that was a major mistake, and have regretted it ever since. That was a major inspiration for sending the peshmerga back into Kahanqin this year.
The dispute within Diyala has largely stayed a local issue so far. Kurdish officials in Khanaqin have welcomed the peshmerga’s return, while members of the Iraqi National Movement from the governorate have protested. National politicians have said little about it, and the Kurds could only deploy their forces with Maliki’s okay. President Barzani’s statement about Khanaqin being Kurdish however raised the political stakes. The prime minister is probably hoping that it leads to little, because the last thing he wants is something that could be exploited by his rivals. His main priority is consolidating power, and dealing with the country’s more intractable problems has simply not been dealt with. That’s why he conceded to the peshmerga moving back into Khanaqin, because it can keep the Kurds happy, while not really changing much. The district is already under Kurdish administration, and security is largely unchanged so Maliki could let this go. This is all part of the game that Maliki is currently playing with masterful skill to stay in office.
Alsumaria, “Iraqiya: Barazani visit to Khanaqin District provocative,” 9/23/11
Aswat al-Iraq, “Peshmerga forces will not withdraw till situation is stable, Barzani,” 9/22/11
Basharati, Saman, “Kurdish Parliamentary Delegation Visits Jalawla,” Rudaw, 8/20/11
Mohammed, Bryar, “Peshmerga fail to curb exodus of Jalawla Kurds,” AK News, 8/23/11
Mohammed, Muhanad, “Kurdish troops on patrol in Iraq’s restive Diyala,” Reuters, 9/9/11
National Iraqi News Agency, “Barzani: Khanaqeen and its suburbs are Kurdish,” 9/22/11
- “Daini calls on the Kurdish leadership to send the Peshmirga to protect the region’s borders, instead of sending them to Diyala,” 8/20/11
Rudaw, “Iraq Army Chief: US Supervising Plan For Joint Task Force On Disputed Areas,” 8/24/11
Taha, Yaseen, “kurdish military in iraq because they ‘cannot sit still and watch Kurdish civilians killed,’” Niqash, 8/23/11