It is an indictment of U.S. foreign policy that the two major players in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) have come to blows: the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Four days ago, Baghdad deployed thousands of its forces and the militias of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to Kirkuk, which is claimed by both the KRG and Baghdad. After clashes following the KRG’s refusal to hand over the province, Baghdad now controls the oil-rich territory.
Kirkuk has long been one of the country’s most dangerous flashpoints and the most coveted of its disputed territories. It contains as much as an estimated nine billion barrels of oil and hosts a series of strategic installations and facilities, including its oilfields, airport, and the important K-1 military base. Kirkuk has historically been home to a Kurdish-majority population, but Arab families were moved into the area to manipulate its demographics during the rule of the Baath regime, a policy that was termed “Arabization.” The region used to be jointly administered by Baghdad and the KRG, but it fell under full Kurdish control after the Iraqi Army withdrew from the province in 2014 as ISIS launched its offensive in northern Iraq. The Kurds immediately moved into Kirkuk to fill the resulting security vacuum. The calculus in Baghdad was that if Kirkuk had remained under Kurdish control indefinitely, it would have resulted in an emboldened Kurdistan at a time when the Iraqi state was fragile and Baghdad’s ruling Shiite political class was facing a crisis of authority.
Observers have been quick to declare that the loss of Kirkuk could set the KRG and, more generally, the Kurdish state-building project back by a decade, and so soon after the Kurdish independence referendum held three weeks ago. But this is not the end of the road for Kurdistan, and it is certainly not the first battle for Kirkuk and will likely not be the last. Fundamentally, it is Iraq that faces an existential crisis resulting from its weak or collapsed institutions, sectarian conflict, and the continued threat from jihadist groups.
ABADI AND THE PMF
The United States has not condemned the Kirkuk offensive and, according to some reports, was even provided with advance notice of the offensive. Its acquiescence to Baghdad’s mobilization was premised on the notion that it would empower Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and sideline hardline Shiite factions aligned with Iran. Essentially, the stronger Abadi looked to the electorate, the greater his chances of winning forthcoming elections—or so goes the thinking in Washington. But that was always faulty logic.
It is particularly telling that Iraqi security forces were joined by the PMF, which itself suggests Abadi lacked the confidence that Iraq’s conventional forces could have retaken Kirkuk on their own. But doing so was dangerous for him. Collectively, Iran-aligned factions and Abadi’s own rivals within his Islamic Dawa Party, including the powerful but controversial former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have sought to upend his premiership since 2014 by adopting a more confrontational position toward the Kurds and moderate Arab Sunni and Shiite factions. In large part, such efforts were aimed at preventing Abadi from projecting himself as an effective and unifying leader ahead of elections in April 2018.
If anything, the victory in Kirkuk sets Abadi up for a fall: it has given further momentum to the PMF’s rise. Meanwhile, within hours of taking Kirkuk, the leadership of the powerful Badr Brigade, a militia established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the 1980s, and Ketaib Hezbollah, which the United States designates as a terrorist organization, lowered Kurdistan’s flag at the provincial council, despite earlier contentions that it was only Iraqi security forces who were in Kirkuk.
The creation of a U.S.-aligned fully independent KRG in control of Kirkuk may have provided the motivation for Iraq’s disparate Shiite factions to come together. But the alliance of unlikely bedfellows will be short-lived as the battle within the Shiite political class over the Iraqi state and its resources deepens in the coming months. In addition to facing pressure from Maliki and Iran-aligned militia groups within the PMF, Abadi also faces resistance from the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads Iraq’s most powerful sociopolitical movement and has mobilized hundreds of thousands of his supporters against the government over the past two years.
In Iraq, power is diffuse, distributed among parties, militias, tribes, and clerics that have turned the Iraqi state and its ministries into patronage networks. Since the toppling of the Saddam regime, elections have been contested on the basis of ethnicity and sect, resulting in coalition governments and confessional power-sharing arrangements that have required grand bargaining between multiple ethno-sectarian factions. Although that system may allow for more inclusive governance, in the absence of national unity, it has also resulted in political deadlock.
For the Kurds, such dysfunction enhances their bargaining position. Since 2003, no government has been formed without Kurdish participation. In fact, Kurdistan was banking on this dynamic as it consolidated its position in places such as Kirkuk. The Kurds may no longer control Kirkuk, but they will still be fundamental to any government formation process in Baghdad after the coming elections. It may be that Baghdad closes the door to Kurdish participation in the governing coalition, but that would be disastrous for Iraq and resisted by both Arab Sunni and Shiitefactions in Baghdad, as well as by Turkey, the United States, and much of the Arab world, since they would fear that such a measure could ultimately favor the Iranian-backed elements of the political class while also putting the legitimacy of the Iraqi state in doubt.
Regionally, Kurdistan will weather the storm because of the volatility in the Middle East and the battle between Iran and Turkey for hegemony. Iran and Turkey are united against the referendum and backed the operation in Kirkuk. But there is little to keep Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran unified against the KRG in the long run. In northern Iraq, Turkey and Iran already back rival armed groups that are wrestling for control of strategically significant, resource-rich territories that lie adjacent to Syria, where Iran and Turkey fight on opposite sides.
Meanwhile, the KRG is an important conduit through which to counter and manage Kurdish groups based in Turkey and Iran, as it has been for decades. For Turkey, the KRG will be crucial to containing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Similarly, Iran faces a rejuvenated Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the sister group of the PKK based in Iran, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran (KDPI). The latter has been afforded sanctuary by the KRG and has held back from engaging Iran in a full-scale conflict, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
The intra-Kurdish web of personal and organizational ties has provided Turkey and Iran with nonviolent, cost-effective means through which to manage their internal Kurdish issues. A weakened KRG would undermine such efforts. Moreover, both could soon compete for stronger ties with the KRG to shift the regional balance of power in their own favor and protect themselves from whatever will follow the end of the military campaigns against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
At the time of writing, locals in Kirkuk and Khanaqin (located in the disputed province of Diyala) were resisting the PMF and Iraqi security forces, and they may yet force them out. Baghdad may soon realize the scale of the challenge it has taken on by exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tensions in a province that it had previously failed to govern and stabilize, let alone control. In other words, Baghdad is not yet in any position to celebrate. Indeed, it is not the Kurds who face an existential crisis. It is Iraq, which is divided among several centers of power, faces Arab Sunni discontent that may yet enable a resurgence of ISIS, and lacks the credibility and legitimacy it would need to solve any of these problems. The Kurds may have the last say.