The crisis in Iraq belongs to Baghdad, not Kurdistan



Mon, 23 Oct 2017 - 06:51 GMT


Mon, 23 Oct 2017 - 06:51 GMT

Fighters from Badr Brigades Shi'ite militia clash with ISIS militants - REUTERS

Fighters from Badr Brigades Shi'ite militia clash with ISIS militants - REUTERS

CAIRO – 23 October 2017: The renewed conflict in Iraq will not come as a massive surprise to anyone with an understanding of the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. In a major shift of alliances and priorities, the U.S.’s two major allies in the struggle against the Islamic State – Iraq and the Kurds – came head-to-head in direct conflict. The collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014 and the growing strength of the Peshmerga were accompanied by the reinvigoration of hostile sectarian tensions in Iraq. Throw an unconstitutional referendum, vast natural resources and a sprinkle of foreign intervention into the mix, and the picture is not pleasant.

I write “renewed conflict” because Iraqi Kurdistan has long suffered under Baghdad’s heavy-weighted hand. With knowledge of the vast oil reserves in the northern region, the Ba’athist central government embarked on an Arabization campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, predominantly since the 1970s, displacing Kurds and settling in Arabs to shift the demographic towards Arab domination. Conflict destroyed Kurdish communities and killed many thousands, while the “Anfal” campaign displayed Saddam Hussein’s genocidal tendencies.

Kirkuk has been the focus of some of the most intense rivalries in Iraq’s modern history and is the most desired of the disputed territories on the ever-shifting border. With an estimated nine billion barrels of oil under the sand, the territory also hosts a wealth of strategic facilities, such as Kirkuk airport and the K1 military base.

With thousands of troops and militia stationed on either side of the border by October 16, observers anticipated the renewed conflict for the disputed territories and the resources they command to be fierce. However, with little fighting, the allied Iraqi and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces overcame the Peshmerga and now fly the Iraqi flag across the oil-rich territory.

Control of Kirkuk is essential for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence aspirations. A territory symbolic of Kurdish strength, the resources provide economic security and independence, which are vital for the landlocked nation. Previously under the shared administration of both Baghdad and the KRG, the Kurds took full control of the city after Iraqi army forces fled from the Islamic State.

The Kurds accuse Baghdad of failing to uphold the 2005 Constitution – principally its failure to observe Kurdish entitlements to 17% of oil rents and the application of Article 140.

2 (1)
Members of Iraqi federal forces gather near oil fields in Kirkuk, Iraq October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

Internal disputes between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistand (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) shattered the unified front vital for an effective Kurdish defense, and led to the capitulation of the Peshmerga. Many analysts hastily asserted that this loss is a major setback for Kurdish independence aspirations – and this may be true – however this situation indicates Baghdad’s deteriorating condition over that of Kurdish combustion.

It is Baghdad that faces an existential crisis. Internal Iraqi issues provided a space for the recent Kurdish territorial expansion, ascending the ladder of international recognition, and making bold steps toward statehood. Iraq has suffered an institutional collapse, a sharp rise in sectarian conflict, an on-going struggle against Islamic jihadists and an unpromising economy threatening to shake the young country to its bare bones once again.

President Barzani postponed an independence referendum for many years. However, with elections in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq upcoming, with the battle-hardened Peshmerga forces and high public moral Barzani was sure to get the result he desired.

Barzani’s unconstitutional drive for independence could not go unchecked. Iraq will face elections in 2018 and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under intense scrutiny for his light-handed approach since 2014. Abadi is also facing strong opposition from many factions who yield immense power in the county – principally the Hashd al-Shaabi hierarchy.

As columns of American-made Iraqi military armored vehicles made their way north to Kirkuk, no-one was surprised. To allow the referendum to take place unimpeded would be akin to political suicide for Abadi. In Iraq power is diffuse, loyalties shift, and only strength prevails.

Abadi is viewed by many in the Iraqi hierarchy as weak and indecisive. Abadi stands in stark contrast to Iraq’s previous Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who favors a heavy-handed approach to leadership and control of Iraq’s institutions. Maliki attached the PMF (Hashd al-Shaabi) Commission directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, establishing direct control over the militia groups. Maliki’s heavy-handedness and aggravation of sectarian tensions would be his downfall however, as Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s highest religious authority, requested that Iran force his resignation in favor of his Dawa Party colleague, Abadi.

Sistani is an important figure in Iraq, and his “fatwa” enabled many Iraqi militias to flourish as the Iraqi army collapsed. Notably, he opposes the notion of “vilayat al-faqih” (the guardianship of the jurists) which is promoted by Qom, Iran, and as such he favors a strong Iraqi state over that of Iranian Shiite influence.

In contrast, Maliki welcomes the support of Iran and its Shiite militias, which form a major faction of Hashd al-Shaabi’s forces.

3 (1)
Iraqi army artillery on a road southwest of Kirkuk on October 17, 2017. AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye

With the Hawija Offensive over, Abadi set his sights on emboldening his position in government through a show of military force towards the Kurds in the disputed territories. However, unfortunately for Abadi the movements of the Iraqi army were preceded by that of Hashd al-Shaabi. Baghdad’s show of strength transformed into a reactionary effort to counter Iran’s proxies. Although Hashd al-Shaabi has been crucial in maintaining security in Iraq, Abadi opposes Iranian intervention.

Abadi’s hand was construed to appear forced.

With the collapse of Iraq’s security institutions, Iranian-backed militias have grown so strong in Iraq that they now dictate the security atmosphere. With battle-hardened soldiers and infinite source of funding coming from Iraq’s eastern neighbor, it appears certain that militias will play a significant role in Iraq’s forthcoming formative years.

The Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi elements don’t want Abadi to appear as a unifying force. Instead, they will demand an ally of Iran, preferably Maliki, to occupy the most powerful office in the country and thus facilitate Iranian interests to establish the so-called “Shiite Crescent”, stretching to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Iranians seek to stabilize Iraq, but stabilize Iraq under the control of Iran’s outreached arm. The growth of the Badr Organization, Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, and the rise in influence and prominence of individuals such as Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, shows that in Iraq, foreign aspirations trump once again.

Amiri is a close friend of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, who plays an influential role in commanding the militias.

As Iran’s allied militias in Iraq grow in notoriety, so does Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, alongside Abadi, Maliki and Sistani, possess the greatest power in Iraq. This supposes that Amiri and Soleimani’s influence falls under Maliki, although this is likely not the case. Sadr commands the fearsome Saraya al Salam militia, which gained notoriety as the Mahdi Army during the post-2003 insurgency in Iraq.

A prominent political figure and central to the “protest movement,” Sadr joins Sistani in his opposition to “vilayat al-faqih” and Iranian Shiite influence in Iraq’s leadership. As the Hashd al-Shaabi grows in strength with Iran’s blessing, Sadr will demand influence, which threatens the stability of Iraq.

4 (1)
Major General Qasem Soleimani attends a meeting of Revolutionary Guard's commanders in Tehran in September 2016. AFP

With a large number of factionalized, well-trained and well-armed militias in Iraq, the notion that Iraq is stable is farcical. Non-state militiamen roam the roads, reporting not to Baghdad but to Tehran, Qom and Ankara. This reverse in the effectiveness of state institutions threatens the future of the state and the Iraqi army to maintain the monopoly of violence.

The international community has been silent over the conflict in and around Kirkuk. At a time in which the U.S. and many European states have been so influential in the region, silence is interpreted as a blessing. This lack of international interest leaves Iraq as a hollow battle ground for Iran and international forces to battle their way into the highest office in the country.

As Iraq collapses in on itself once more, again the Kurds will likely fill the vacuum of power left behind in the pockets on its disputed border with Iraq. If the Kurds stay united and avoid PUK-KDP fictionalization, they will likely find themselves in the powerful position which allowed them to grow since 2003. Kurdish unity was victorious post-2003 in the face of Iraq’s capitulation, and once again the Kurds will avoid the proxy battle encompassing Iraq and capitalize on the void of stability and security.


Joseph Colonna



Leave a Comment

Be Social