Iraq's penchant for the 'military option' with Kurdistan

Iraq's penchant for the 'military option' with Kurdistan
Comment: The Iraqi army's operation in Kirkuk concluded almost a decade of efforts on Baghdad's part to force the hand of the Kurds, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
18 Dec, 2017
Iraqi forces pass an oil plant near Kirkuk during an operation against Kurdish fighters [AFP]
The intelligence chief of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, recently stated that Iraq has preferred the military option when it comes to dealing with Kurds rather than constructive dialogue. 

The October events in Kirkuk and Iraq's general policy towards territories disputed between it and Kurdistan over the course of the last decade demonstrate that Barzani is not far off the mark.

"The Iraqi government evades the peaceful option, and it is clear that officials in Baghdad still prefer the military option in dealing with Kurdistan," Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, said last Monday.

His comments come after a plethora of concessions made by Erbil to Baghdad to end tensions and clashes between them and to have punitive measures - such as the international ban imposed on Kurdistan - lifted.

These include the Kurds essentially affirming they will not secede from Iraq by upholding the first article of the Iraqi Constitution, which states that Iraq "is a federal, independent and fully sovereign state in which the system of government is parliamentary and democratic republic, and this Constitution is a guarantor of the unity of Iraq".

Despite this, Baghdad has not yet entered any negotiations, nor has it offered to lift any of the current mesaures against Kurdistan.

When he sent the Iraqi Army and Shia Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries to take Kirkuk city in mid-October, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed he was doing so "in accordance with the constitution to serve the citizens and protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition due to the insistence on holding the referendum".

This, however, couldn't be further from the truth. Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk had expressed worries as early as last February that the build-up of Hashd south of Kirkuk was intended to fight them, not the Islamic State (IS).

Baghdad invariably resorted to threats when it came to the status of the disputed territories between it and Erbil

Also, it was clear Baghdad would not permit the Kurds to continue controlling Kirkuk completely once they wrapped up the fight against IS, regardless of any Kurdish independence referendum.

More broadly, years before Kurds talked about independence, Baghdad invariably resorted to threats when it came to the status of the disputed territories between it and Erbil. Kirkuk's seizure, followed by the rapid Peshmerga withdrawal from all these territories, came after just under a decade of continued Iraqi threats and military deployments in this and other disputed areas.

The first notable example of this was in Khanaqin in 2008, when Iraqi forces were sent to near the disputed area in order to assert their control. This resulted in an exchange of fire between Iraqi police and Kurdish forces. The Iraqis then forcibly removed a Kurdish political party from government buildings there. Only US mediation prevented these escalations from turning more violent.

[Click to enlarge]

Later, in 2012, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn't just forcefully challenge Erbil on the territories but argued that the Iraqi Army could go to any part of Kurdistan - even the four autonomous provinces of Erbil, Duhok, Halabja and Sulaimani which are widely recognised as being rightfully controlled and governed by the Kurds - if it chose to do so.

Under the constitution the Iraqi Army, Maliki insisted, had the right to deploy anywhere, be it Basra in south Iraq or Zakho on Iraqi Kurdistan's frontier with Turkey.

Maliki also sought to disarm the Peshmerga and place them under the command and control of Baghdad, which would essentially completely disarm Kurdistan, something the Kurdish leadership would not hear of. His demands and deployment of the army on Kurdistan's frontiers resulted in tense standoffs but ultimately no war.

As is the case now with his successor, Maliki only selectively cited the constitution, and outright ignored it when it came to implementing solutions that would actually conclusively resolve the status of all the so-called disputed territories, hence the long neglected Article 140.

Read more:  How Islamic State became a military threat in Iraq and Syria

Despite his deployment of vast numbers of tanks and troops to retain a firm hold over these territories, Maliki was infamously unable to defend an inch of Kirkuk or anywhere else when IS swept across northern Iraq in June 2014.

Kurds seized that historic opportunity to take hold of Kirkuk and hundreds of Peshmerga would subsequently give their lives defending it and all of its residents for over three years.

The de-facto June 2014 Peshmerga takeover of Kirkuk resulted in no civilian casualties and saved the city from being seized by IS. This comes in dire contrast to the Iraqi Army/Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) Shia militia takeover last October, which resulted in the displacement of 181,000 people and the destruction by these militias of civilian homes in Tuz Khurmatu.

Iraq's attacks on the Kurds also eradicated the fruitful progress made between Baghdad and Erbil during the war against the common enemy, IS

Iraq's attacks on the Kurds also eradicated the fruitful progress made between Baghdad and Erbil during the war against the common enemy that IS represented. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani affirmed numerous times that Kurdistan would continue to support Abadi and the Iraqi military against common terrorist threats, even if Kurdistan became fully independent.

The Peshmerga helped the Iraqi Army decisively during the war against IS by securing the Makhmour Front and providing the Iraqi Army secure routes to Mosul to begin their operation there this time last year.

In the Kirkuk province town of Hawija, the Peshmerga also secured routes that helped the Iraqis remove IS from their remaining redoubt there, which they successfully did in early October before moving on to Kirkuk.

Ultimately what Abadi did in October was conclude almost a decade of efforts on Baghdad's part to force the hand of the Kurds to gain total undisputed control over these territories, regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants.

In the process he unequivocally demonstrated to the Kurds that even a leader who stresses conciliation in Baghdad will ultimately have no scruple about readily resorting to brute force against them.

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

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

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.