In Absence of US Leadership, War Breaks out between Kurds and Baghdad

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The “Voice of Iraq” reports that last night artillery duels broke out between Iraqi army forces and Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary personnel to the south of the city of Kirkuk. The report is sourced to Peshmerga officers who declined to have their names used. For their part, Iraqi officers loyal to Baghdad spoke of the exchange of katyusha rocket fire in the south of Kirkuk.

Ordinarily the US president would have swung into action to call the leaders concerned and attempt to forestall the outbreak of hostilities. There are likely some 10,000 US troops in the country in the Iraq Command reestablished by Barack Obama in 2014. The US forces have a close relationship with the Kurds, their best allies during the 2003-2008 occupation of Iraq, and have been crucial to the defeat of ISIL by prime minister Abadi. If the US had a real president instead of a petulant and self-absorbed toddler, likely this new Arab-Kurdish war in Iraq would not have broken out.

1200px-Iraqi_Governorates h/t wikipedia

Both sides agree that Iraqi troops have begun an advance on the city of Kirkuk, which was seized by Kurdistan Peshmerga forces in 2014 during a time when ISIL had occupied the neighboring Sunni Arab areas of Iraq. The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which had been part of the Baghad government of Iraq from 2003, recently voted to secede.

The KRG consisted of the provinces of Sulaymaniya, Erbil and Dohuk, but had long wished to add the mixed province of Kirkuk to its confederacy. The KRG became autonomous in the 1990s because of the no-fly zone initiated by George H. W. Bush after the Gulf War of 1990-91, from fear that dictator Saddam Hussein would conduct reprisals against Kurds for throwing off Baath Party rule during that war.

Iraqi Turkmen and Arab residents of Kirkuk object to the annexation, and Baghdad is signalling that now that ISIL is largely defeated, it will not any longer accept Kurdish dominance of Kirkuk. The 2005 constitution crafted mainly by Shiite and Kurdish members of the Iraqi constituent assembly, with strong American input, had scheduled a referendum in Kirkuk itself to decide the fate of the province, but that referendum has never been held.

A Kurdistan municipal body reported on twitter that Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militias had also begun moving to take control of K1 military base and of disputed petroleum fields in Kirkuk province, advancing from Tuz Khurmato south of Kirkuk city. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s paramilitary, the Peshmerga (‘those who stand before death’), invaded and took over the K1 base from the 12th Iraqi Division in June, 2014.

The advance by the Iraqi army was preceded by accusations launched by PM Abadi that the Kurdistan Regional Government, headed by Massoud Barzani, had brought guerillas of the PKK (Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party) to Kirkuk to help defend it. The KRG denied the charge. (If it were true, or if Ankara thought it were true, it would enrage the Turkish government and make it more likely to support Baghdad in taking back Kirkuk).

Abadi referred to the alleged PKK mobilization as “a declaration of war.”

Baghdad had given the KRG an ultimatum to withdraw from Kirkuk by last Friday.

The PKK is engaged in a hot insurgency against the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and has bases in the Qandil mountains inside Iraqi Kurdistan, which are thought to be winked at by the KRG.

The Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan is conservative, capitalist and right wing compared to the far left PKK, but both are characterized by a strong Kurdish nationalism. Their love-hate relationship may be tilted to the love side at the moment.

Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Shiite Badr Corps militia (which is linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps), had personally led militiamen to the Kirkuk front.

Since most Kurds are Sunni Muslims and many are left of center, the inclusion of right-wing theocratic Shiite militiamen in the Baghdad forces heading into Kirkuk will inflame ethnic and religious tensions. About half of the Turkmen who also claim that Kirkuk city has long been theirs are Shiites, however, so the militiamen see themselves as upholding their rights. Kirkuk province has a population of about 1.2 million, and Turkmen are probably only about ten percent nowadays; there is likely a Kurdish majority, though there is also a substantial Arab population.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Kurdish referendum: Clashes break out between Iraqi and Kurdish forces

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18 Responses

  1. The breakdowns of empire have consequences.

    This one may not immediately affect the American public (though I suspect future historians will see this breakout of warfare between supposed clients of the USA as an important turning point to whatever we’re headed for), yet do I smell one final oil price panic brewing ?

  2. When does the “Potter Barn” rule expire…You broke it you own it? Our success rate and experience with settling disputes in the middle east and Iraq especially is pitiful. Our only contribution seems to be to supply more gunpowder.

    This pot has been ready to boil over for decades. I suspect Netanyahu and his new found influence in the White House will push Trump to support the Kurds in their fight for independence leading to more chaos, which our juvenile president seems to thrive on.

    Also, I question if we still have leverage with the Iraqi government to make them play nice. For once, maybe, we should let the Iraqis settle their own civil disputes.

  3. Hard to blame Trump on this – there is too much at stake for a call by a US President and a “carrot and stick” approach to make any difference. What is being decided is which state gets the oilfields.
    Previous Presidents have dangled ideas of Kurdish autonomy which look unrealistic if a landlocked Kurdish state can be blockaded by the nations losing territory. Like the 1991 uprising, raised expectations are likely to be disappointed amidst further instability and bloodshed.

  4. The man who bragged that he knows more than all the Generals, and that he alone can fix it, is turning out to be clueless, and it seems he alone is destroying what other Presidents took years to build, within a few months.

  5. “If the USA had a real president” (you say)
    then USA would not be in Iraq at all, or would have left in 2008.

  6. The Kurds are finding out how the gratitude of Uncle Sam is fleeting. I wonder if they expected this betrayal and will find new allies soon?

  7. The US has a dilemma about which of our “allies” we support. If the Iraqi army is influenced (led?) by General Soleimani, who is the Al Quds leader in Iran, then supporting the Kurds might prevail. Al Quds has been conveniently declared a terrorist organization by the US – as well as the Trump’s general disdain for Iran. On the other hand, supporting the Kurds would be anathema to Turkey and Erdogan, whose strong-man image Trump likes. Either way, if the US had a strong State Dept. and President who respects diplomacy, this situation might not have gotten so dangerous.

  8. The problem with saying that we’re better off with a hegemon to hold bad situations together and hold off the outbreak of war is that everyone can use that argument at different scales. Assad can use that excuse for holding together the bad situation that he inherited in Syria.

    The reason Roosevelt pushed for the UN when America seemed to have the greatest hegemonic advantage the world had ever seen is that he knew it would lead to something bad. He told his son Elliott that one day American boys would die fighting a war to keep one of the European colonial empires together.

    But now we have no effective UN and no effective hegemon, and worst of all, no one deserving to be the hegemon. There are possible major multistate wars brewing in Korea, the island disputes of East Asia, India-Pakistan, Saudi Arabia-Iran, and Kurdistan. Nuclear weapons may be involved. No one prepared for all the possible wars that could break out if American hegemony stopped holding them back because most of us found it unimaginable, and a few of us found it wonderful.

  9. If Kurdistan had access to seas, it would already be another sheikhdom with mega permanent bases.

  10. Honestly I am not sure what policy is best for President Trump to pursue.

    Prof. Cole, what would you suggest that China, Russia, Europe, Iran, Japan, South Korea (South Korea has close ties to Kurdistan), Australia, Canada, UN do about it? [It is a fair bet that Turkey will support Iraq and the Sunni Arab majority states will quietly salivate at Iraq’s discomfiture.]

    This is a major blow to China (Iraq’s largest business, investment and trade partner) and Russia (one of Iraq’s and Kurdistan’s closest allies).

    It is unfair for the world to expect Americans to solve all the world’s problems. America should keep her focus on fighting extreme militant Islamists, wherever in the world they are; and try to stay out of other conflicts. But make no mistake, this is bad, very bad.

    My hope was that Kurds could be persuade to join the IA and IqAF in large numbers. Keeping Kurdistan in Iraq liberalizes Iraq and reduces Islamism inside Iraq. That becomes harder now.

    • Kirkuk as an issue is different from Kurdistan as an issue. The Constitution already has a mechanism for resolving it, and it wasn’t by Peshmerga just seizing it.

      Presidents have helped resolve such conflicts many times in the past. No evidence this one a) knew the issues or b) even tried.

      Russia is not particularly hooked in with the Kurds. China will back Baghdad to the hilt and disapproves of small ethnic separatist movements.

      • The Kurds reached out to Putin and Russia for help in 2014; when initially President Obama refused to help (Obama later changed his mind); and Putin responded to Kurdish requests for help. Since 2014 the Russians have had a robust FID program to help the Peshmerga. The Russians also assisted Kurdish militias fighting in Syria (in addition to the Syrian Army). The Russians offered to hit targets that the Kurds provided to Russia. I understand that the Russians have hit targets the Kurds requested.

        In addition to this Russia has provided considerable assistance to IMoD (Iraqi Ministry of Defense) since 2014. Something for which I greatly praise the Russians. My hope is that the Russians step up their assistance to IMoD over the medium and long term. Russia is arguably the most popular and respected country among Iraqis. Much the way India is the most popular and respected country among Afghans. Plus the Russians are secular and not islamist.

        Russia has been masterful, until now, at simultaneously allying with the Peshmerga, IMoD and Golden Division (CTS). Now Putin will have to navigate carefully.

        “China will back Baghdad to the hilt and disapproves of small ethnic separatist movements.” Until now China didn’t need to choose. China allied with both. Many of the problems Baghdad had with KRG related to KRG directly signing contracts and making deals with China; versus through Baghdad.

        I agree with you that if China is forced to choose (China will try not to), they will side with Baghdad . . . more money to be made that way. Chinese dominate the economy in Baghdad and the nine southern provinces. Lots of Chinese workers and business people are visible in Southern Iraq.

        It is really too bad that Trump doesn’t have the vision to demand that China stop free loading on Iraq; but actually contribute something to Iraq. For example a robust FID program. I believe China would comply if the Iraqis insist hard enough. For reasons that defy my understanding there is opposition to this within several parts of the Washington Establishment.

        China is imperfect; but China is strongly anti Islamist, non sectarian; and shares economic interests with Iraq, America and the world. A larger Chinese role in Iraq would strengthen IMoD, IMoI and the formal civilian government at the expense of unprofessional militia who have unpredictable loyalty to Baghdad.

        If I were facilitating negotiations between Baghdad and the KRG . . . I would say:

        “you will both make a lot, lot, more money if you cooperate with each other. Money isn’t everything. Money isn’t the most important things. But it sure comes in handy sometimes.”

  11. Much to do about OIL! At near seven decades of production, Kirkuk Field still produces up to 1 million barrels per day, a large portion of all Iraqi oil exports. Output from the Kirkuk oilfield is now delivered via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, which flows to the multi-pipeline terminal at Ceyhan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The same BP-run (aka BTC) terminal which also handles the output from oil fields in Central Asia.

    link to bp.com

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