Iraqi Kurdistan in disarray after the loss of Kirkuk

Iraqi Kurdistan in disarray after the loss of Kirkuk

Analysis: The Kurdish political divides which led to Baghdad re-taking Kirkuk in less than a day could leave Kurdistan much more vulnerable, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
19 October, 2017
Iraqi Kurdistan is this week in disarray following the retreat of its Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk and all of the other territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.

Morale is low and tempers high in light of the speed of this defeat and the increasing internal tensions that have resulted directly from it.

The retaking of Kirkuk by Iraqi troops and Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries in the Popular Mobilsation Forces (known in Arabic as the Hashd al-Shaabi) took a mere day. The Kurds had no support, and events on Monday showed just how riven they are by internal rivalries between the two leading Kurdish parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the latter of which administered Kirkuk.

"The PUK was split but the majority of the leadership wanted to make a deal with Baghdad and avoid conflict in Kirkuk," Iraq analyst Joel Wing told The New Arab.
The PUK was split but the majority of the leadership wanted to make a deal with Baghdad and avoid conflict

"Governor Najmaldin Karim (of the PUK) and the KDP, however, were sabre-rattling and wanted a confrontation, blaming the Hashd and Iran for being behind everything.

"The PUK withdrew its forces from southern Kirkuk, forcing the KDP to do the same, which led to the Iraqi forces advancing all the way into Kirkuk city and Governor Karim fleeing."

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The Iraqis quickly followed their success by advancing into all the other disputed territories between Baghdad and Erbil. The Peshmerga withdrew, including from Sinjar, home of the Yazidi minority in Nineveh.

Following the withdrawal from Kirkuk and other territories, the Kurdish Peshmerga Ministry released a statement on Tuesday claiming that borderlines between Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region would "remain as they were on the day before the Mosul liberation operation [against the Islamic State group] started", ie; October 16 2016 - coincidentally exactly a year to the day of Monday's Kirkuk takeover.

Aside from Kirkuk, most other disputed areas, such as Khanaqin in Diyala Province and Sinjar, had been under Peshmerga control since 2003.

Iraqi Kurdistan is recognised by Iraq and the international community as an autonomous region consisting of three provinces: Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimani.

Until Monday, Kirkuk had been under Kurdish control since June 2014, when the Iraqi army fled as the Islamic State group made its infamous takeover of Mosul. The city has always been of central importance to Kurdish nationalists, to an extent that it's often described as "the Kurdish Jerusalem".
The illegal referendum is over... its results invalid

Its status has never been fully resolved, and it remains one of the many disputed areas between Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Region. This is because Iraq never implemented Article 140 of the constitution, which clearly states that the status of these territories should be conclusively determined through, and resolved by, a census of the people who live in them - followed by a referendum.

The Kurdish independence referendum of September 25 adhered to the same basic principle - that it was up to the people in the disputed areas whether they wanted to become part of an independent Kurdistan or remain part of Iraq.

Upon successfully sending the military into all disputed territories and taking down Kurdish flags, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared: "The illegal referendum is over... its results invalid". He did affirm the right of Kurds to fly their own flag in their three recognised provinces, but still demands that all Kurdish border crossings in the autonomous region be handed over to federal authorities.

Comment: Abadi's capture of Kirkuk might just save Iraq

The Baghdad-imposed flight ban over the region has remained in force since the referendum.

For his part, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani issued a statement in which he appeared to blame the PUK for losing Kirkuk, when he spoke of "some people from a certain political party" having "unilaterally paved the way for such an attack, whose result was the withdrawal of the Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk."

Tensions between the two parties, plus fears of a serious economic embargo on the region, brings back bitter memories for many Kurds. In the mid-1990s, Kurds suffered as a result of the international embargo on Iraq and another imposed on them by Baghdad, which sought to cripple their fledgling autonomy, as well as a civil war between the KDP and PUK.

Brakuji, Kurdish for "fratricide", is a word that comes to the mind of Kurds when they think of that dark time, which most want to keep firmly relegated to the past.

During that civil war Iraqi Kurdistan was divided into two rival administrations, run by the KDP in the west, Duhok and Erbil, and the PUK in Sulaimani to the east. To make matters worse, support from neighbouring powers helped to prolong and exacerbate the conflict.

Today, after the biggest territorial loss in more than a decade, and amid serious internal fissures and tensions emerging as a result, the autonomous region needs to exercise extreme caution to ensure it doesn't end up becoming divided back into two administrations - which would make it even more vulnerable to the surrounding powers that seek to keep its independence aspirations firmly in check.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon