Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:47:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Last counties in Kirkuk fall to Iraqi Gov’t as Sistani calls for protection of Kurdish Citizens Sat, 21 Oct 2017 06:32:23 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Iraqi military and its Shiite militia auxiliaries have completed their reassertion in Kirkuk. The last pockets of resistance fell as units advanced on Altun Kupru, the last check point before you get to Erbil, one of the three Kurdistan provinces. In the process, there was reportedly heavy fighting with the Kurdistan Peshmerga paramiitary. Neither side has released how many casualties they took.

Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the foremost Iraqi clerical leader, asked the Iraqi government to protect Kurdish civilians. The statement came after reports surfaced that Shiite militias had abused Kurdish noncombatants in Kirkuk city, as well as in surrounding ones.

Sistani had nevertheless backed the Baghdad government’s move to recover Kirkuk province. He just wants the process to be as orderly and lawful as possible. Although Sistani is often credited with reviving the Shiite militias to fight ISIL in 2014, he clearly wanted them to be an arm of the regular army. He does not have any tolerance for disarray.

Sistani’s nationalist rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, also made a plea that the long tradition of religious and ethnic coexistence should be reasserted. He had likewise supported the reintegration of Kirkuk into Iraq.

Sistani and al-Sadr are functioning as Iraqi nationalists when they voice support for the Kirkuk operation. People sometimes forget how much Shiite Iraqis can adopt country nationalism about Iraq. Sunni Arabs in that country were often tempted by pan-Arabism or pan-Islam. The Iraqi Arab Shiites always knew that there is just one country where they have a hope of being in charge.

Reuters points out that without Kirkuk’s oil wealth, the three remaining rugged provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government likely could not survive economically if they tried to declare independence.


Related video added by Juan Cole

AFP: “Clashes as Iraq army takes Kurd-held area of Kirkuk province”

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Iran Deal: 67% of US Citizens Don’t Want to Pull Out Sat, 21 Oct 2017 05:57:34 +0000 TeleSur | – –

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he wants to “decertify” the agreement.

A CNN poll has found that 67 percent of U.S. citizens don’t want Washington to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he wants to “decertify” the agreement, which would allow Congress to make changes to the multi-nation accord and potentially pull the country out of the historic deal.

“It would be a waste of time to respond to such blatherings and nonsensical remarks by the foul-mouthed U.S. president,” Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in response to Trump’s threat.

Only three out of 10 polled said they felt Iran posed a “very serious” threat to the United States, the lowest rate since 2000.

Of the over 1,000 people polled, 62 percent said they feel a “very serious” threat from North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK.

Yet, an even larger number, 63 percent overall and 88 percent of Democrats, feel Trump has been “more reckless than responsible” in his rhetoric against the DPRK. An overall 57 percent of those asked “disapprove” of how Trump handles relations with the Asian country.

The CNN poll was conducted by SSRS via telephone.

Via TeleSur


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CGTN: “Mogherini: No one country can terminate Iran deal”

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Warm waters melting Antarctic ice shelves for 1st time in 7,000 years Sat, 21 Oct 2017 05:46:22 +0000 Sev Kender | (The Conversation) | – –

The vast expanse of the Antarctic is a region of the world particularly vulnerable to climate change, where ice loss has the potential to significantly increase sea levels.

Now, for possibly the first time in 7,000 years, a phenomenon known as “upwelling” (the upward flow of warmer ocean water to the surface), is thought to have caused recent ice shelf collapse around the continent – and the glacial thinning associated with it.

Ice shelves floating on water are the oceanic extension of land glaciers and ice sheets, and the primary region for ice loss. As these shelves break apart, the flow of continental ice held up behind them accelerates.

The ocean surrounding Antarctica is extremely cold, but water over 300m deep, Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW), is about 3⁰C above the melting point of ice. Normally, the very cold water above keeps this away from ice shelves. But in some areas, CDW is spilling onto the shallow Antarctic continental shelf, causing the ice to thin.

Ice shelf thinning has accelerated in recent decades, but the picture is not the same everywhere. While the east of the Antarctic has shown modest gains in ice thickness, the west has outstripped this with significant ice loss – up to 18% in vulnerable areas like the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas.

The pattern of ice loss and other observations indicate that warmer water upwelling beneath these ice shelves is driving it. But what has caused this upwelling? Is it related to human activity? And how concerned should we be?

Two teams led by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, both of which I have been working with, set out to tackle these precise questions by focusing on two vulnerable areas. One site is in Pine Island Bay, in the Amundsen Sea, and the other is in Marguerite Bay, in the Bellingshausen Sea.

The aims of the studies are similar – to monitor the extent of upwelling warm water onto the continental shelf over the past 10,000 years, in order to understand when this last occurred and what the impact was.

This involves collecting and sampling “cores” of sediment up to 10m long from the sea bed at a range of depths up to 900m. Obtaining suitable cores is particularly challenging in these remote locations, where glacial dynamics often disturb the sediment.

Core evidence

Much of the evidence for past oceanography comes from tiny shells of amoeboid organisms called foraminifera. A huge variety of species colonise habitats on the sea floor and make up much of the sediment collected. There can be hundreds of shells in just one gram of sediment.

Electron microscope images of planktonic foraminifera N. pachyderma from Pine Island Bay. Scale bar: 100µm equals 0.1mm.
Nature Publishing Group

Forams are extremely valuable, as their shells are made of calcium carbonate precipitated from the ocean water in which they lived. Examining these shells allows us to reconstruct the chemistry of ocean water.

There were two geochemical tracers used for warm CDW in Pine Island Bay – the proportion of carbon isotopes, and the magnesium to calcium ratio controlled by water temperature. Both of these showed CDW was last on the inner shelf over 7,500 years ago.

In Marguerite Bay, shells of another plankton group called diatoms were also analysed. These indicate past productivity and sea surface temperatures. They showed that CDW was persistently on the shelf here over 7,000 years ago, and more sporadically since then.

Tellingly, the enhanced upwelling of warm CDW in both locations negatively impacted the local extent of ice.

Winds of change

Both studies suggest that the cause of the CDW upwelling before 7,000 years ago was a more southerly position of the southern hemisphere westerly winds (SHWW). These winds are thought to drive circulation of the warmer deep water. A recent shift in the position of the SHWW towards the poles could be the cause of greater CDW upwelling in Pine Island Bay since the 1940s.

Data llustrating the apparent link between winds and ocean around western Antarctica. The migration of the southern hemisphere westerly winds (SHWW) coincide with upwelling of Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) in the Amundsen Sea.

This coincidence of timing with the onset of industrialisation shows it is possible that human made greenhouse gasses, thought to cause atmospheric warming, are having an impact on the position of the winds, the increase in warm water reaching the surface, and ultimately the melting of more ice in the Antarctic.

The ConversationIrrespective of the causes of past changes in SHWW positions, the link between winds and ocean upwelling is cause for concern, as future projected global warming may shift SHWW belts and promote further upwelling and melting. More research is now needed to fully understand the link between CDW and past climate, and to estimate the strength of upwelling since the 1940s compared to upwelling before 7,000 years ago. But the emerging picture is one of the potentially increased vulnerability of West Antarctic ice sheets, and possible future sea level rise.

Sev Kender, Lecturer in Palaeontology, University of Exeter

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS NewsHour: “Antarctica is melting faster than scientists expected”

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Like his hero Trump, John Kelly falsely smears Critics Sat, 21 Oct 2017 05:31:00 +0000 The Los Angeles Times | (Video News Clip) | – –

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, criticizing Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, misrepresented an April 2015 speech she made at the opening of a new FBI building in Miami. (Oct. 20, 2017)”

“Frederica Wilson 2015 Video Shows John Kelly Got It Wrong | Los Angeles Times”

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George W. Bush & GOP lack standing to bash Trump for Racism Fri, 20 Oct 2017 06:55:57 +0000 By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

George W. Bush gave a speech on Thursday widely interpreted as an attack on Trump in which he deplored the rise of white nationalism and bigotry in the past year. “Bigotry,” he lamented, “seems emboldened.”

George W. Bush may or may not personally be a nice guy. People used to say he was the sort of person you’d enjoy going for a beer with, and he has had close African-American and Arab friends.

On the other hand, he authorized the CIA to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammad practically to death. And, throughout his public career was complicit with the Republican Party dog whistle of racism and he wouldn’t have been president without it.

We can’t blame W. for his father’s campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988, when George H. W. Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater played the race card. Republican Governor Francis W. Sargent in 1972 had signed into law a furlough program for inmates in prison, and one Willie Horton was let out for a weekend on the program when Michael Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts. Horton committed assault and rape and fled, though a Muslim police officer later shot and apprehended him.

Atwater did up campaign ads trying to tie Dukakis to Horton, and very successfully so. He said, “I’m going to strip the bark off the little bastard and make Willie Horton his running mate.” In 2016 mainstream Republican strategists were still talking about using a “Willie Horton” strategy. Atwater used to like to play Chicago blues, but after 1988 African-American musicians often avoided him like the plague. Atwater repented on his death bed and apologized for what he had done.

I’m not aware that W. ever criticized his father’s campaign for this tactic. It was very racist. I remember the ads. Horton was a disreputable-looking fellow and Atwater paired his photo up with that of Dukakis as though they were jointly on the most wanted list. The racism virtually dripped off the tv screen and pooled on the floor below.

But W. himself also does not have the standing to bash Trump on this issue, most unfortunately. This sad fact diminishes our country. I wish it were otherwise.

Exhibit A is the 2000 Republican primary campaign. Bush was running against Senator John McCain (R-AZ). McCain’s wife Cindy had visited an orphanage in Bangladesh and seen a little girl with a cleft palate who badly needed surgery. She and John adopted her and named her Bridget. Although Bridget was not raised Muslim, I think the McCains are particularly sensitive to anti-Muslim bigotry because of having a Bangladeshi in the family, and McCain refused to play the Islamophobia card in his campaign against Barack Obama in 2008.

In 2000, the McCains campaigned in South Carolina with their children, including Bridget. So Bush’s mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the idea of robo-calling voters and calling into talk radio, asking the question, “If you knew McCain had an illegitimate child with a Black woman, would that affect how you felt about him.” The Republican Party in South Carolina is solidly white, although the state is 1/3 African-American, and what they were pleased to call ‘miscegenation’ had been a crime in South Carolina until the late 1960s.

Because people had seen Bridget at the rallies, Rove’s smear was widely believed, and it contributed to McCain’s loss in the GOP primary. Bush winning South Carolina cemented his standing as a front runner.

No racism and bigotry, no Bush presidency. (McCain handily won South Carolina in 2008 when Rove was not calling the shots any more). Now you could say that Rove was behind all this and W. may not have backed it. But Bush never denounced Rove or dissociated himself from these tactics. The buck stops with him.

I agree with Bush that the poor response to Katrina by Bush and his FEMA was probably largely incompetence and that Kanye West was wrong to call him a racist over it (West has since apologized).

But Bush’s tax cuts went overwhelmingly to rich white people, and were designed to make it more difficult for the government to continue its social welfare spending, which benefits African-Americans. Structural racism was a big part of the Bush administration even if that wasn’t the lens through which W. himself saw his policies.

Moreover, Bush’s FBI wrongly targeted perfectly innocent Muslims, including those at the charity, the Holy Land Foundation, producing some of the biggest travesties of American justice since the end of Jim Crow.

The GOP had been better than most Democrats on race issues in the first half of the twentieth century. But with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Nixonian “southern strategy,” the party actively sought to become the mouthpiece for angry white men.

Trump is merely the logical conclusion of the Southern strategy, and until the Republican Party comes to terms with its decades of latent racism and its rather loud dog whistle, it will create more and more Trumps. Indeed, with Der Robert Mercer’s billions behind him, Der Steve Bannon is planning to oust GOP merely latent mild racists, and replace them with full on Nazis. The party has to decide whether it will acquiesce in this hostile takeover. If it won’t, it has to apologize for past racism and develop some other less toxic way of appealing to upper middle class voters.


Related video:

Washington Post: “George W. Bush’s ardent speech on democracy, in 3 minutes”

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Are China and N. Korea biggest Winners from Trump dissing Iran Deal? Fri, 20 Oct 2017 05:38:01 +0000 Neil Thompson | (Informed Comment) | – –

The recent move by President Trump to unilaterally decertify Iran under the 2015 nuclear agreement has predictably caused tensions between Iran and the West to rise. Trump’s unilateral jettisoning of the Obama-era deal (which has been sent back for 60-day congressional review in a bid to renegotiate parts the Trump Whitehouse dislikes) has also angered the other five powers who signed the multilateral accord, which was enshrined in a UN resolution.

They point out that international inspectors say Iran is in technical compliance with the accord and that the nuclear agreement will remain valid regardless of President Trump’s actions. The air of international exasperation with the cranky US President, who has also withdrawn America from the Paris climate accord and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (and started renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement) in pursuit of his “America First” campaign pledges, is palpable.

But the biggest damage to US credibility has probably been done far away from Iran, the Middle East or even Great Power political circles. Instead it is in East Asia where the terrible diplomatic precedent of an American leader trying to unilaterally renegotiate a functioning international nuclear accord will be felt the most. A binding multilateral nuclear agreement was meant to restrain a rogue state’s sovereignty to pursue nuclear development; but it promised regime security in exchange.

Hardliners in authoritarian countries who pointed out that Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi had both been invaded and overthrown after giving up their weapons of mass destruction were placated with the promise that any international agreement was permanent and binding. That promise has now been demolished by a US president who often seems bent on simply tearing up everything his predecessor accomplished before him, regardless of the cost to others.

The American breach with Tehran is therefore a propaganda gift to the hereditary Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who has spent the last few months trading insults with President Trump over his own country’s nuclear and missile programmes. The North Korean leader has already tested more rockets than his father and grandfather’s regimes did combined.

Indeed, since his accession to power in 2011, North Korean foreign policy has seemingly revolved around acquiring a nuclear deterrent capable of hitting the American homeland before any resumption of diplomatic relations. While it is unlikely that a revival of the Six-Party Talks or some other multilateral forum could now dissuade Pyongyang from its attempts to achieve this, the North Korean regime now has the perfect riposte for any who even try; America doesn’t keep to its international agreements unless deterred by fear of mutual catastrophe.

But strengthening the North Korean government’s diplomatic hand looks even more foolish strategically when one takes into account the fact that Trump is counting on North Korea’s enabler China to rein in the regime. With exquisitely bad timing Trump announced he was ditching the Iran nuclear deal (to which China is a signatory) just before China’s leader Xin Jinping was to begin celebrating the end of his first term in office at the Chinese Communist party’s 19th party congress.

Meant to celebrate a new era of Chinese strength and prosperity, this congress is also crucial to the Chinese president’s personal political future. Five of the seven members of the central Politburo Standing Committee and six of the 25 strong Politburo are due to stand down in accordance with the party’s unofficial rules on retirement; President Xin therefore has an unusually large number of places he can fill with personal loyalists.

During this transformative “patriotic” period there is no way that anyone in Beijing can be seen to break ranks with an East Asian communist regime in its own back yard, especially not for the Americans. Yet even as he restarted the US confrontation with Iran, Trump was also seeking ways to pressure China into cutting off the economic lifelines the North Korean elite rely upon to keep their dysfunctional country up and running. In September the US threatened to target major Chinese banks over their ties to North Korean actors. This followed actual American sanctions on China’s Bank of Dandong, for allegedly helping North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Neither move will have been well received by Beijing, which has many options for retaliation against American firms once its party congress is over.

It is extremely unlikely that a rising China (with a sovereignty-obsessed ruling class) will accept the demands of America’s extraterritorial legal and financial systems in the way that smaller states in Europe and Asia have. North Korea may thus end up becoming the geopolitical flashpoint that spurs China into formally creating it’s own global business architecture and cross-border payment systems, independent of the US neo-liberal order.

This process will be aided by the global perception that under Trump the United States is a law unto itself, but one which is happy to hold states hostage by their economies until they submit to American demands. Trump’s recent threat to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization like al Qaeda or the Islamic State is another gift to hardliners in Beijing and Pyongyang both.

If the US can unilaterally designate a branch of the armed forces of a UN-member nation an illegal organisation and impose sanctions, then it is taking upon itself the right to decide who is, and is not, a legitimate state actor; neither China nor North Korea will ever accept this state of affairs and if Trump carries out his threat against the IRGC both states will feel more justified than ever in looking to the only weapons proven to be capable of deterring a hostile US; nuclear ones. The “grown ups” in the Trump Whitehouse should consider the cost to America elsewhere of the president’s chest-beating over Iran. It may help save the American led global system they are supposed to be protecting.

Neil Thompson is a freelance writer who has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University, and is now based in London.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CGTN: “China calls on US to maintain commitment to agreement on Iran nuclear deal”

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Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly so paranoid? Fri, 20 Oct 2017 05:37:28 +0000 By James L. Gelvin | (The Conversation) | – –

In the past, Saudi Arabia depended upon its enormous oil wealth and the United States for its security. It used the former to buy friends and pay off enemies and potential enemies. It used the latter to guarantee its survival. With a few exceptions, Saudi Arabia did not involve itself directly in the affairs of its neighbors.

Over the course of the past decade, however, that has changed. Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Bahrain and Yemen. It helped finance the 2013 coup d’état launched by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. It has supported insurgents in Libya and Syria and put together an international coalition purportedly to fight terrorism. And it led the Gulf Cooperation Council’s campaign against its tiny neighbor, Qatar.

Why the sudden change?

Based on recent developments, it is evident that Saudi Arabian officials assume that they can no longer depend on their traditional security safeguards of oil and U.S. might. They seem to imagine that the only guarantee for their security is their own muscular response.

As a historian of the modern Middle East who has researched and taught about the region for over 30 years, I believe there are three causes for the shift in Saudi Arabia’s security stance: the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011, the policies of the Obama administration and the collapse of oil prices.

A perceived threat

Saudi Arabia looked at the Arab uprisings as a potential calamity. The Saudis support the status quo in the region and Saudi-Western leadership there. The uprisings endangered not only Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian allies such as Egypt and Bahrain, but the regional order and the foundations of Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy as well. The uprisings also threatened to expand the realm of democratic and human rights in the region – something which the Saudi regime fears.

Furthermore, the Saudis feared the uprisings would open the way for the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region. That led to the Saudi intervention into Yemen, where they believe the Iranians have meddled. In reality, local grievances, not Iranian meddling, precipitated Yemen’s current civil war. Saudi Arabia made the same accusation with regard to Bahrain, although a royal commission appointed by the king of Bahrain failed to find any evidence of Iranian subversion there.

Just as serious for the Saudis, the uprisings threatened to empower Muslim brotherhoods and Muslim-Brotherhood-style movements throughout the region. The Saudi royal family believes this movement provides a model for reconciling religion and politics that competes with its own vision of the proper relationship between the two. While the brotherhoods have linked religion and politics, the Saudi royal family has sought to distance one from the other to prevent the emergence of potentially destabilizing Islamist movement. This has been the royal family’s survival strategy since 1932.

At the behest of Abdulaziz ibn Al Saud, the founder of the current Saudi state, Saudi religious scholars have emphasized the doctrine that Muslims should passively obey their leaders so long as those leaders are also Muslim. That is still their position.

The Saudis were outraged by what they claimed was American support for the Arab uprisings. While the American government was, in fact, ambivalent about the uprisings because friendly autocrats have furthered American interests in the region since World War II, the Saudis were outraged that the United States did not give its unconditional support to the authoritarian governments it had long supported.

Saudi Arabia versus Obama

This brings us to the second reason for Saudi paranoia and assertion in the region: the Middle East policy of the Obama administration.

Obama sought to reverse the fixation of his predecessor, George W. Bush, on the Middle East. He believed that the United States should focus its attention on East Asia, where the global future will be determined, not on a region as conflict-prone and economically stagnant as the Middle East.

And so Obama was looking to reduce America’s commitments in the region and resolve or at least smooth over conflicts so that the United States could turn its attention elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why he signed the Iran nuclear deal and tried to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Most of all, he sought to have American allies take more responsibility for their own defense.

Obama’s grand strategy, however, made America’s traditional allies in the region fear abandonment. The Saudis found his comment that they would have to learn to “share the neighborhood” with Iran particularly horrifying.

Saudi Arabia’s oil dependency

The final reason for Saudi paranoia has to do with the collapse of oil prices. From June 2014 to April 2016, oil prices dropped 70 percent for a variety of reasons, including a glut in the market, alternative sources for fuel and conservation.

Most economists think the price of oil will rebound, although not to peak levels. But this hasn’t prevented oil-producing states from following the advice of the International Monetary Fund to take steps to diversify their economies.

Saudi Arabia has been particularly receptive to IMF entreaties. In spring 2016, then-Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman unveiled a plan titled “Vision 2030.” “Vision 2030” is hardly innovative. It includes a list of the same tired free-market recommendations that have been applied internationally since the 1970s.

The plan calls for privatizing government assets, including education and 5 percent of the national oil company, Saudi Aramco; reducing and targeting subsidies on oil, electricity and water; introducing an income tax; and creating 450,000 new private sector jobs, among other proposals.

The odds that Saudi Arabia is capable of transforming its economy to become globally competitive in 13 years are not high. This would mean, among other things, discarding the most effective tool the Saudi government has to gain that population’s consent – buying it. When the Arab uprisings threatened to spread to Saudi Arabia, for example, the Saudi government distributed US$130 billion worth of grants to its population to maintain their loyalty. It would also mean ensuring a free flow of information in a country in which transparency on all levels of governance and commerce is rare. In 2017, Saudi Arabia ranked 168th out of 180 countries surveyed in terms of press freedom. Finally, it would mean changing attitudes toward work in a country in which women make up only 22 percent of the workforce – compared to close to 40 percent globally – and foreigners literally do all the heavy lifting.

The ConversationMuhammad bin Salman has already had to back away from some of the proposals outlined in “Vision 2030.” It is unlikely this vision will be any more successful than Saudi Arabia’s failed Yemen war, for which the crown prince is also responsible.

James L. Gelvin, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

TRT: “Roundtable: Can Saudi Arabia reform?”

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Kirkuk Kurds Anguished about Future of Province Fri, 20 Oct 2017 05:27:42 +0000 By Shalaw Mohammed | ( | (Kirkuk) | – –

People in the northern city of Kirkuk have lived through a lot, including attacks by the Islamic State. But for many, last weekend was the last straw.

In the middle of the night of October 16, the people of Kirkuk were glued to their televisions and computers. News about Kirkuk was being continuously updated and nobody really knew what was happening. All they knew is that they were hearing about fighting and a possible civil war.

Would the Iraqi government, upset with the fact that the country’s Kurds had held a referendum on independence and possibly had plans to secede from the country, actually go to war with those living in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan?

For a while it looked like they might. At approximately one in the morning on the night of Monday, October 16, there was a confrontation between the Iraqi Kurdish military and Iraqi government forces. More specifically the clash occurred between the special commando forces belonging to Division 70 of the Iraqi Kurdish military with the Kurdish 2nd support battalion and members of the East Tigris troops of the Iraqi army as well as fighters from the Shiite Muslim militias.

“One of our officers refused to withdraw, saying he would die here rather than let them pass. The commander said that if he did not withdraw, he would come down there and kill him, himself. So we withdrew.”

The Iraqi government soldiers were headed towards Kirkuk airport and the Kurdish military, also known as the Peshmerga, was trying to prevent them from getting there.

“We headed to the Taza sub district to try to stop the army and the militias from going to the airport and there was a confrontation near the bridge to the industrial district,” confirms Rasoul Karkui, commander of the Iraqi Kurdish military in Kirkuk; he is also known as Wasta Rasoul. “A violent clash took place and heavy weapons were used.”

However, after only a few hours, orders came from the senior commanders in the Kurdish military that the Kurdish troops should leave the area immediately. The Iraqi army and the Shiite Muslim militias were then able to move onto their destinations without any further issue.

“We were putting up stiff resistance when we got a call from a commander who told us to withdraw,” one of the Kurdish soldiers told NIQASH, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media. “One of our officers refused, saying he would die here rather than let them pass. The commander said that if he did not withdraw, he would come down there and kill him, himself. So we withdrew.”

Karkui told NIQASH that he and his men also heard that Shiite Muslim militias were attacking other Kurd-controlled areas around Kirkuk, including Bashir, Tal al-Ward, Mullah Abdullah and Maktab Khalid. That was another reason they decided to withdraw.

“We knew we were fighting three big enemies, who had all decided that Kirkuk needed to go back to the way it was before,” Karkui said, referring to Iraq, Iran and Turkey. “We had no other choice,” he said of the withdrawal.

The details remain murky but it appears that a deal had been made on Saturday that the Kurdish troops would withdraw and the Iraqi troops would take their place. This deal was agreed upon by Iraqi authorities and Kurdish politicians and it was apparently brokered by Iranian mediators. Representatives of both of Iraqi Kurdistan’s largest political parties, who rule the semi-autonomous northern region, were there when the deal was done: That is, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The deal was done only a few hours before the aforementioned fighting started. The meeting was held under the supervision of senior Kurdish politician, Fuad Masum, who is also the president of federal Iraq.

However, both the KDP and the PUK won’t give any further details about any such deal or whether in fact the deal was done at all.

Meanwhile Kurdish soldiers are blaming the politicians. They are asking why they were sent to fight when this agreement was already in place, especially because the fighting led to the deaths and injuries of their colleagues-in-arms. Numbers are hard to get but there are apparently 32 dead Kurdish soldiers, 100 injured and 17 missing in action.

“On the first day of the operation we received orders from the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces about returning federal authority, and deploying our forces, to certain specific locations,” an Iraqi major general, Ali Fadhil Omran, told NIQASH. “That is contrary to the rumours spread about us that said we came here to kill and torture Kurdish citizens. We won’t stay inside the city,” he added. “And we will hand the city back to province’s police forces.”

On October 17, the day after the withdrawal, the general command of the Iraqi Kurdish military issued statement in which they said the attacks were launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, supported by Iraq’s pro-government forces. The statement also accused some senior members of the Kurdish military of “treason”.

The commander of the 70 division of the Kurdish military, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, gave a statement saying that the withdrawal was solely his responsibility and that he had ordered it to save the lives of his men.

After the Kurdish military withdrew, Kurdish citizens of Kirkuk also fled. The drive between Kirkuk and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, usually takes around one hour. That day it took nine.

“After the Islamic State attacked Kirkuk and despite all of the threats that Kirkuk faced, we always saw a clear direction for the Kurds and a brighter future,” explains Azad Hama Amin, a 37-year-old Kirkuk local who owns an auto accessories store in the city, but who decided to leave for Erbil that day. “But this time, having seen the Peshmerga defeated and officials admit their failures and also leave Kirkuk, we decided it was best we leave the city too.”

“And we can’t return right now,” Amin says, “because we have heard rumours that anyone who voted “yes” in the referendum will be punished and so will members of the security forces.”

Still, the next day a large number of those who had fled their homes in Kirkuk did return. Many said that the Iraqi soldiers and militia members did not treat the returnees badly and that they were generally respectful.

However, some Kirkuki Kurds, who stayed in the city, said that they were insulted and they felt that the Kurdish were disrespected, especially with the removal of the Kurdish flag.

But perhaps this is not so surprising. In March this year Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, Najmuddin Karim, who has since been dismissed from the post, caused headlines when he raised the Kurdish flag at state-owned buildings around Kirkuk. The city has mixed demographics and locals of Turkman and Arab ethnicity were offended by the governor’s actions. They were also upset by the referendum on Kurdish independence, which many felt had been pushed onto the city. Kirkuk is not actually part of Iraqi Kurdistan – it is one of Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories”. That is, the Kurds believe it is part of their region but Baghdad thinks it is part of Iraq proper. Having said that, the Kurds have been in control of Kirkuk for the past few years, despite a population of mixed ethnicities.

So, it is not surprising that other ethnic groups in the city were happy to see pro-government forces enter Kirkuk, remove the Kurdish flags from public institutions and raise the Iraqi flag again.

“Turkmen and Arabs have every right to celebrate,” Arshad al-Salihi, a senior Turkman politician in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “The administration and the security forces here were monopolised by the Kurdish officials and the lives of our leaders were never protected. Many of our senior people were assassinated during and after the fight against the Islamic State group.” Al-Salihi adds that he is completely opposed to any kind of punishment of Kurdish locals in Kirkuk.

Although there were some attacks on Kirkuk residents by members of the militias, this didn’t lead to widespread antipathy among locals. In fact, when some Kurds left their homes, their Arab and Turkmen neighbours contacted them to ensure they had arrived safely inside Iraqi Kurdistan and to assure them they were watching out for their houses and property. A lot of locals launched campaigns on social media calling for unity in Kirkuk.

One of the pictures that was particularly widely shared showed a local man writing, in Arabic, on the door of a Kurdish neighbour: “Nobody is allowed to enter the home of my Kurdish brother. This is an order given by his displaced brother, a son of Hawija”.

Hawija is a nearby Sunni Muslim-majority city that was, until very recently, a stronghold for the IS group.

So what happens now? Since the day and night of the withdrawal, the two parties who played a role in it have been trading insults and recriminations. The KDP has used its media channels, Rudaw and Kurdistan24, to spread misinformation and to blame the PUK for collaborating with the Iranians. The PUK has used their channel, Kurd Sat, to ask questions like this: If the withdrawal was made by secret agreement that excluded the KDP, then why were the areas defended by KDP troops, also handed over without a fight?

While the leader of KDP, Massoud Barzani, says that certain persons from a certain party were to blame – it was clear he meant the PUK – military leaders from the PUK have said that Barzani agreed to the troop withdrawal too, but is now denying it.

Meanwhile ordinary Kurds are far from pleased with their political class; there have calls for the politicians, who did this deal in such an underhand, unilateral way, to resign and activists have launched a campaign on social media demanding this.

Whether that happens or not, it is clear that Kirkuk will not be returning to the way it was for the past three years. Right now, the city is calm and ordinary people are waiting to see what will happen.

There is talk of three possible scenarios. Firstly, that the city will remain under the control of federal authorities. Secondly, that the Iraqi Kurdish military will try and take the city back by force, which seems highly unlikely given the current mood. And thirdly, and probably most likely because of the demographic makeup of the city, Kirkuk will come under some kind of joint administration, with both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan playing a role.

In the end, the most unfortunate thing is that those who fell in the fighting were not aware of the secret deal. Kurdish officer, Aziz Ali, who commanded a regiment of the 102nd brigade, spoke to NIQASH last Friday, expressing his concerns about the burning of the Kurdish flag; he perished in the fighting over the weekend.

And other locals who suffered similar losses in the fighting that was all, apparently, for nothing, are very angry. As the crying mother of one of the soldiers killed said at her son’s funeral this week: “If you had reached a deal, then why did you need to burn up our hearts?”



Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP: “Balance of power shifts in Iraq’s multi-ethnic Kirkuk”

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