Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After Kirkuk

Having pushed himself into a corner, Barzani is back playing out Iraq’s Kurds as victims of a conflict without end, writes Salah Nasrawi

After Kirkuk
After Kirkuk

In the aftermath of Iraqi Kurdistan’s unilateral referendum on independence on 25 September, Iraq’s central government issued a stern warning to the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) it would it would resort to all means necessary to block the autonomous region from leaving Iraq. 

However, KRG President Masoud Barzani took the warning with a pinch of salt. He defied pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and international warnings that the vote could ignite yet more regional conflict.

Barzani, also commander-in-chief of the KRG forces, even vowed that the enclave’s new borders, drawn up after Kurdish Peshmergas fighters captured huge swathes of territory from Iraq including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, “will be defended with blood.”

Yet, with the fall of Kirkuk to the Iraqi security forces on 16 October, which left Kurdish independence ambitions shattered, the magnitude of the challenge seems to be even more daunting in the crisis with Baghdad.

As troops from Baghdad took back all the land annexed by the Kurdish forces when Iraq was fighting the Islamic State (IS) terror group in summer 2014, the KRG’s leaders started weighing up their options.

Last week, Baghdad sent its army and the para-military Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) to liberate the territories that stretch along about 1,050 km of northern and central Iraq and are populated largely by Arabs, Turkmen and Yazidis.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi ordered the military action after the KRG rejected demands to rescind the vote, which the country’s Supreme Court had declared to be illegitimate.

On Friday, the Iraqi forces took control of Altun Kupri, the last district in the strategic province of Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, following a three-hour battle.

But as the Kurdish forces have lost ground, the KRG leadership has been eyeing opportunities to respond to what is seen as a humiliating and devastating defeat.

Early signs indicate that Barzani does not see the loss of Kirkuk and the rest of the territories as the end of the road for Kurdistan. In a statement, he said that the “Kurdistan nation will one day achieve its goal of independence.”

While Barzani is expected to continue playing on the long-standing Kurdistan narrative of independence, his short and medium-term options seem to be to put up limited resistance to the central government security forces.

Unlike in Kirkuk, the KRG tried to show that military force was still an option when Iraqi forces advanced towards areas close to its capital Irbil. 

Kurdish media close to Barzani reported fierce fighting between the Peshmergas and the advancing Iraqi forces in Altun Kupri. They said that the Peshmergas had killed or wounded some 150 Iraqi troops and destroyed a dozen armoured vehicles.

The Iraqi command denied the casualty reports, however.

Meanwhile, pro-Barzani media reported clashes in Kirkuk and talked about resistance by local Kurds to government troops in the city. The Iraqi command confirmed that in one incident a soldier had been killed and four others injured in an ambush.

It is not clear if Barzani will risk an all-out military conflict with Baghdad, but it would be gross miscalculation to use force that would only result in more tragedy.

If military action proves to be a non-starter, then the Barzani administration could resort to street protests in Kurdish-populated cities to put pressure on Baghdad.

Barzani has increased his rhetoric against Baghdad, another sign of the confrontational mood that has dominated the Kurdistan administration since the fall of Kirkuk.

By upping his public-relations campaign, Barzani may hope to influence international public opinion and incite foreign governments against Baghdad.

In a statement, Barzani called on “freedom-lovers” around the world to put pressure on their governments in order to “prevent another genocide and disaster that is befalling our nation.”

He claimed that the Kurds are “facing threats, blockades and collective punishment” for exercising their “peaceful right to hold a referendum”.

Barzani also called on the Kurds of the diaspora to help Kurdistan by “demonstrations and activities in support of the Kurdish people”.

One method of mobilising international public opinion against the Baghdad government has been reports put out by the KRG that the Iraqi forces are using US and European-supplied weapons against the Kurds.

Sensational news reports have been another weapon used by KRG officials to fuel anger among the Kurds and human rights organisations in their latest chapter of rhetorical chest-thumping against Baghdad.

As the Iraqi troops consolidated their control, sensationalised news reports began to stream onto Kurdish social-media feeds, news outlets and TV channels about the Kurds rising up against the troops.

Other reports suggested that there had been forced displacements of the Kurds and claimed that unidentified young men had rampaged through the streets of Kirkuk looting Kurdish homes and burning property.

The goal of this disinformation campaign is to show that unrest and chaos have been rampant and will not be stopped in the absence of intervention by the US and other Western nations.

But the Kurds have other options besides this narrative of victimisation that they can use as strategic tools against Baghdad. The KRG has thousands of IS terrorists who fled from Mosul and other cities in its detention, and it might unleash them against Baghdad in new offensives.

One of the key cards in Barzani’s hand is to try to complicate the delicate regional game by realigning Kurdistan with Turkey, with which it long maintained close relations before Barzani’s call for the referendum.

Turkey is believed to be increasingly worried about tensions between Iraq’s government and Iraqi Kurdish officials playing into the hands of Iran.

Some Turkish media have sounded the alarm over concerns about Iran-backed Shia militias playing an increasing role in Kirkuk, which is home to the Turkmen ethnic minority who are closely tied to Turkey.

As the spectre of Kurdish independence is now receding, Barzani, who has always considered Turkey an ally, might be able to convince Ankara to resume closer cooperation by drawing attention to the Iranian influence in Kurdistan.

One important spoiler role that Barzani will aspire to play is to try to convince Washington to help in reinforcing the Trump administration’s efforts to counter Iran. In order to do so, he will need to rebuild relations with the United States that were bruised after he defied its recommendation to put off the independence vote.

While a negotiated solution to Kurdistan’s woes with Baghdad remains preferable, there are increasing fears that Barzani will choose to fight like a wounded tiger instead in order to cover up the humiliating defeat he suffered with the failure of his independence bid.


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