Abadi's capture of Kirkuk might just save Iraq

Abadi's capture of Kirkuk might just save Iraq
Comment: Abadi's recapture of Kirkuk doesn't render him an enemy of the Kurdish cause, but he and the Kurds need each other to avoid a vicious divorce, writes Gareth Browne.
7 min read
17 Oct, 2017
Kirkuk's re-capture by Baghdad was described by some Kurds as a death in the family[AFP]
Kirkuk has long been the bogeyman of Iraqi politics; a sectarian hot-pot often described as a tinder box ready for a spark.

For Arabs, and the Baghdad government, it is an essential city of Iraq's make up; its diversity a microcosm of the whole country. Yet for the Kurds in the north, it has been described as their "Jerusalem" - the jewel of a future independent state.

When the Iraqi army fled its posts in 2014 as the Islamic State group rampaged across northern Iraq, capturing a third of the country, the Kurds seized the opportunity and moved into the disputed city. They held their lines and defended the city against IS. For them, it was the ultimate prize, and many assumed they would never let it go.

Late on Sunday night, as the Iraqi military and Iranian-backed elements of the Popular Mobilsation Forces moved into southern Kirkuk, the rhetoric was fierce; leaders on both sides warning of all-out war. Iraq was once again on the brink.

Thus it has come as a surprise to many that the Baghdad-aligned forces took control of Kirkuk in less than a day. Peshmerga resistance was seemingly minimal. Thousands of Kurdish and Sunni residents fled, but it was not the Guernica it might have been.

A deal was struck between the Talabani faction of the PUK, which commands many of the Peshmerga based in southern Kirkuk - a group still grieving over the loss of former leader Jalal Talabani earlier this month - and the Baghdad government.
PUK Peshmerga withdrew from their positions without resistance - though reportedly under fire in several hotspots. Exactly what they were offered in return remains to be seen. The deal has appears to have been confirmed publicly - a statement from the KRG prime minister's office explicitly accused the PUK of betrayal. Those in the PUK who wanted to stay and fight, notably Kirkuk's former Governor Najmaldin Karim and Peshmerga commander Kosrat Rasol Ali, were cut out of the decision-making process, and by the time they were aware, it was too late. The Kurds had lost Kirkuk.
Yet for the Kurds in the north, Kirkuk has been described as their 'Jerusalem'
How the Talabani clan will rationalise this to their base is hard to see; their grip over the PUK has been slipping ever since Jalal Talabani's stroke in 2012. Perhaps the Kirkuk deal will drive the final nail into that coffin.

But it did not cease there. Peshmerga withdrawals were greater than any demands Baghdad had made in the preceding days, and in the early hours of Tuesday morning, withdrawals took place in virtually every disputed territory - including Bashiqa, Gwer and Sinjar. They are now pushed back to near pre-2003 borders, decades of work undone in mere hours, something unthinkable just a few days ago. President Barzani is set to release a statement today, and some suggest his presidency may be finished.

Iran remains a huge player in Iraq. Its infiltration of the Ministry of Interior, and certain army units, and the influence it wields over the PMF is vast - but there is one crucial realm of decision-making it hasn't been able to overwhelm - the office of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
Former PM Nouri Al-Maliki has been baying for blood ever since he was ejected in the wake of the 2014 IS blitzkrieg, and is still attempting to engineer a return to the country's most powerful office. He is not the only one - Iran has plenty of loyal figures throughout government and the PMF who would be virtually indistinguishable from Maliki in governance.
MPs throughout Abadi's Dawa party, and across the State of Law coalition are also keen to see the back of the current prime minister, and have him replaced with a more amenable leader less threatening to their interests. Abadi's efforts to combat corruption, and govern across sectarian lines are a threat to much of Iraq's political establishment, and that establishment will stop at nothing to see him fail.

Recent polling shows Abadi's support among the country's Sunni population is at historic levels, as one adviser to the governor of Anbar told The New Arab earlier this year: "Sunnis in Baghdad and Nineveh finally have someone they feel they can vote for." For Maliki, and other politicians who mobilise their power base on the grounds of sectarian rhetoric and factionalism - this is a disaster.
Abadi is the only thing preventing an Iranian lackey - be it Maliki, or someone less conspicuous - from taking the prime minister's office
Abadi is the only thing preventing an Iranian lackey - be it Maliki, or someone less conspicuous - from taking the prime minister's office and cementing Iranian domination of Iraq's political scene as absolute.

Some will point to the involvement of Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the Kirkuk operation as evidence of it being an IRGC plot to push back against a staunch US ally. But come next year's elections it will be Abadi, not the IRGC puppets, who feel the bump at the ballot box. Politically it will be Abadi, not Iran's puppets, who are credited with recapturing Kirkuk.

Washington's relative silence over Kirkuk was not an acknowledgment of defeat, nor a capitulation to the Iranian colonisation of Iraq, rather it was a tacit endorsement of a return to the pre-2014 status quo. It also represents an understanding that, in order to remain in office, Abadi had to be perceived as strong on the issue of Iraq's territorial integrity.

Read more: Kirkuk has already exposed Trump's incoherent Iran strategy

For Abadi, the recapture of Kirkuk - and other recent victories against IS in Mosul and Tal Afar - have confirmed his status as a defender of the Iraqi state. The Kirkuk incursion was, at this stage, believed to have been largely "clean", with a minimal number of casualties - though this is disputed by leading Peshmerga figures. In some regards the re-taking of Kirkuk by Baghdad-aligned forces is perhaps better described as a redeployment than as a traditional military operation. Abadi will ride the wave of popularity into a second term of office, buying time for another four years to press on with his reforms which have yet to see much definite progress.

Abadi's recapture of Kirkuk does not render him an enemy of the Kurdish cause per se. A new term in office, and the credibility he now has with many Arabs will give him the opportunity and legitimacy to negotiate a more sustainable deal with the KRG government.
Kirkuk's re-capture by Baghdad was described by some Kurds as a death in the family. There is anguish and despondency among many
Analyst Michael Knights has highlighted that, since 2014, the KRG had been in full control of Kirkuk, and profiting from much of its oil production - yet it was Baghdad that was paying the bills. This was never a sustainable status quo. Abadi now has the breathing space to negotiate a deal that might work for both Erbil and Baghdad in the long term.

Kirkuk's re-capture by Baghdad was described by some Kurds as a death in the family. There is anguish and despondency among many. The Kurds have an undeniable affinity with, and a strong claim to, parts of the city - Abadi must recognise this, and he must also reach out to Kurds and involve them in the governance of Kirkuk. It is a diverse city; its governance and security apparatus must reflect that, as must the distribution of oil profits.

Under the right conditions, Abadi is someone with whom the Kurds can negotiate a fair deal, whatever shape that may take. The recent referendum did not present those conditions - for many in Baghdad the fact the poll was held in disputed territories was seen as a unilateral act of Kurdish expansionism.
At present, there is no alternative candidate for the prime minister's office that might give the Kurdish cause a fair hearing. They may not realise it, but if a stake in Kirkuk's future, greater autonomy for the KRG or even Kurdish independence is to be anything other than a vicious and messy divorce, the Kurds need Abadi.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.