Iraq: Kurds repel ISIL/ Daesh w/ help of the Shiite Militiamen they Distrust

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

In a bold move, Daesh (i.e. ISIL or ISIS) fighters moved Monday on Kirkuk and Erbil, two cities patrolled by the Iraqi Kurdistan paramilitary, the Peshmerga (those who stand before death).

Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Kirkuk is an oil city and is disputed among Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds. If Daesh, based in Syria’s al Raqqah and in Iraq’s Mosul, could capture Kirkuk, it would gain a major source of oil income.

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Daesh fighters were repelled, and some number killed, by the oddest coalition you’d ever want to see. The Kurdistan Peshmerga took the lead in defending Kurdistan, but they were joined by Iraqi government security forces and by Shiite militiamen who came up from the south. These forces were given close air support by the US Air Force.

Kurdish commanders announced that they had regained control of Kirkuk and had chased away the Daesh fighters.

The Peshmerga were aided in a number of battles by the Arab Shiite militiamen, recalling their coalition at Amerli, last fall. They had also collaborated in Diyala Province more recently.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani visited the front and stressed that any force willing to fight alongside the Peshmerga against Daesh is welcome.

Daesh fighters also tried to take villages near Erbil, the captial of Iraqi Kurdistan. They were repelled with the additional help of US fighter jets. Dozens died in this fighting.

The cooperation achieved between the Shiite “popular forces” militias and the Peshmerga may not have been unprecedented, but it did refute observers who had predicted an Arab-Kurdish fight.

Kirkuk has an Arab population, including some Shiites, along with Turkmen Shiites– who contest Kurdish insistence on annexing it to Kurdistan. Barzani appears to have earlier been threatened by the Shiite paramilitaries’ approach. He warned that he would not let them come into Kirkuk.

His warning was in part a reply to the leader of the extremist Shiite militia, the League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq), who had complained of the “Kurdishization” of Kirkuk. Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Corps, another Shiite militia, also pledged to come into Kirkuk. The largely Shiite Iraqi army deserted its posts in Kirkuk last June, leaving the Peshmerga (who had conducted joint patrols with the army) in charge of the oil city. The Shiite militias appeared to wish to replace the Iraqi troops, laying down a marker on Arab interest in Kirkuk, which has de facto been annexed by Kurdistan.

As Daesh approached, Barzani abruptly changed his tune and welcomed the Shiite militias with open arms. (It is not impossible that Iran played a behind the scenes role in getting Barzani and the Shiites to make up. Iran supports both Iraqi Kurdistan and the Shiite militias.

This tension tells us two things. 1) The potential for further Kurdish-Shiite tension is there. And, 2), both sides are for the moment pragmatic enough to bury the hatchet in the breast of their common foe.

8 Responses

  1. A third point implied in the text may also deserve recognition. Crushing Daesh would presumably be a relatively straightforward task for an organized military that behaves properly. Iran is the major if not only candidate in the region. If they play their cards right, the Iranians could be the big winners. It’s worth looking a few moves ahead, since Daesh is highly unstable and probably won’t last long in the nation-state business.

  2. Why is Iran supportive of the Kurds? Is that a new development? I thought they were against Kurdish independence (or the close analogue of great autonomy in Iraq) due to the large Kurdish population in northwestern Iran, fearing that the Kurds would want to seperate from the rest of Iran?

    • Not real sure, but I think it dates back to the Kurdish civil war in the mid 1990s between Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Talabani received assistance from Iran. Barzani was aided by Saddam Hussein.

      A few years ago (2007, I think), Talabani went to a fat farm in Minnesota to lose some weight. Before he went back to Iraq, he visited Tehran. They gave him a parade.

      In Kobani, Turkey allowed the Peshmerga to send in fighters but not other Kurds, especially ones from Syria. I was surprised to learn Turkey and Barzani have a close business relationship.

      Everything is so fluid.

  3. Frank, Iran has been supportive of the Kurds since the Iran Iraq war days. Iranians and Kurds share ethnic and cultural ties. Tehran’s Mayor is Kurdish, there are lots kurdish celebrities in Iran and in the Iranian Government. While Iran is against some Kurdish separatist groups such as Pejak and PKK, it considers these groups to be in the minority.

    Its a bit like the US government and population being against Texan separatist groups who wish to declare themselves an independent republic while still being proud of the state of Texas and people from Texas.

  4. Wow. Never before the past few months have we seen so much of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Even when the first enemy is our enemy.

    • Dan,

      Iran and the Kurds were never enemies as I mentioned above.

      Dr. Richard Frye who recently passed away writes: “the mosaic of peoples living in Iran today reflects the central geographical situation of the country throughout history, frequently described as a crossroads of Eurasia. Although many languages and dialects are spoken in the country, and different forms of social life, the dominant influence of the Persian language and culture has created a solidarity complex of great strength. This was revealed in the Iran-Iraq War when Arabs of Khuzestan did not join the invaders, and earlier when Azeris did not rally to their northern cousins after World War II, when Soviet forces occupied Azerbaijan. Likewise the Baluch, Turkmen, Armenians and Kurds, although with bonds to their kinsmen on the other side of borders, are conscious of the power and richness of Persian culture and willing to participate in it.”

      Tehran’s popular Mayor M.B. Ghalibaf is Kurdish and was the runner up to the Presidential elections. Thus Iran almost had a Kurdish president 2 years ago .
      Khamenei who is the highest authority in the country is an ethnic Azerbaijani

      One of the major positive policy changes that the current regime did was to be much more culturally inclusive than the the previous Pahlavi Shahs. The Pahlavis tried to homogenize all of Iranian society into “Persian” society.

      For example the University of Sanandaj (Iranian kurdistan’s capitol ) offers courses in Kurdish and papers are published in Kurdish language, as well as radio stations and newspapers in Kurdish, but only after the revolution.
      Use of local language newspapers / radio was not allowed before the revolution, nor were loacal language courses allowed at Universities. Anthropologist Lois Beck from the university of Chcago in her book on Iranian minorities writes “Tribal populations, as well as all ethnic minorities in Iran, were denied many national rights under the Pahlavis and were victims of Persian chauvinism. National education, in which all students were required to read and write in Persian and in which Persian culture and civilization were stressed to the almost complete neglect of the contributions of other population segments, was culturally destructive.”

      Even Iraqi president Jalal Talabani expressed that Kurds are treated well in Iran and stated in an interview to a Jordanian newspaper once and he stated “Iran never tried to obliterate the Kurd’s identity. There is a province in Iran called Kordestan province. The Iranians name their planes after the province in Iran [including Kordestan]” – Interview in the Jordanian newspaper al-Ahram al-Yawm (amman), December 1, 1998

      In Irans 6th parliamentary elections 18 Kurds won seats.

      Thus your statement about “enemies of my enemies” doesnt really apply to Iran and the Kurds. The US and Israel often try to exploit Irans ethnic diversity but mostly its results arer limited.

      link to newyorker.com

      link to foreignpolicy.com

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