Recent clashes between the Iraq army and troops from Iraqi Kurdistan have alarmed many. But while troop numbers in the area grow, the locals don’t seem to be convinced. Is it just pre-election sabre rattling? Geo-political? Or is what the politicians say true, and war is imminent?
“It is the sound of war echoing again. The Kurdish may soon see blood. We are all with you so don’t lose your spirit.”
Those are the lyrics to a famous song that is broadcast by media in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan whenever the local military are preparing for a confrontation of some kind. Locals know that when they hear that song then there is, as they say, “the smell of war”.
But the song is not having the same effect as it used to. Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region with its own government, legislation and military. Although the mixture of people living here is broad – including Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims and a variety of other ethnic and religious minorities – almost all the majority - of Kurdish ethnicity - identify as Kurdish before anything else.
The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. For many, the idea of a nation of their own, a greater Kurdistan, is something to strive for – and in fact, this is one of the biggest conflicts between militant Kurdish fighters who believe in that dream and the governments of the various countries in which they live, such as, for example, Turkey.
Currently the closest the Kurdish get to their own country though is Iraqi Kurdistan and after years of persecution by the former Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein, they are not planning to give up their autonomy or rights.
Up until relatively recently the Iraqi Kurdish politicians and those in Baghdad seemed to have established a relatively amicable, if not exactly untroubled, relationship. However recently tensions have been building again.
Earlier this year one of the most senior Iraqi Kurdish politicians, Massoud Barzani, described Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a dictator, Iraqi Kurdistan signed oil deals with major multi-national companies that Baghdad authorities described as illegal and trouble seemed to be brewing again about Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories”. Basically these are lands that Iraqi Kurdistan says belongs to their region whereas Baghdad says the lands belong to the rest of Iraq.
Then in September 2012, the formation of a new military command post – the Tigris Operation Command - in Kirkuk, in the middle of the area of disputed territories, saw tensions escalate again. High ranking Kurdish officials called the new outpost a conspiracy by Baghdad to take control of Kurdish areas while Arab politicians saw the new Iraqi forces as a positive addition to local security in areas that are still some of Iraq’s most dangerous.
And ever since the formation of this military command, analysts have speculated that, if the matter was not handled slowly and carefully, there was potential for clashes between the two military forces present – the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, tasked with protecting the Iraqi Kurdish territory, and the Iraqi army sent in by al-Maliki’s office.
The events of the past week in the district of Tuz Khurmatu in the Salahaddin province have proven them right.
Last Friday there were clashes between forces made up of the Iraqi police and army and Iraqi Kurdish military with allegiance to one of the two major political parties running the semi-autonomous region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK. Clashes between the two groups left one civilian dead and wounded two PUK military members, five Iraqi police and eight members of the Iraqi army.
The incident was extremely worrying with many fearing that it could be the spark that ignited a more heated military exchange. The first response by Barzani, who heads the PUK and who is also the President of the Iraqi Kurdish region, was to ask the people of Iraqi Kurdistan to be prepared for any unwanted eventualities. Of the heads of the two major political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani has been the most confrontational.
The day after the clashes, the Iraqi Kurdish Minister for Peshmerga – the name given to the Iraqi Kurdish military – and other ranking politicians and military leaders visited Tuz Khurmatu. The Minister, Jafar Mustafa, said that all of his troops were ready to defend the disputed areas and Peshmerga military commander, Mahmoud Sankawi, said that his troops were prepared to confront those he described as “occupying forces”.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish media were reporting that the new Tigris Operation Command had been placed on the highest level of alertness and that more troops from the Iraqi army were being sent into the area.
Sources from within the Peshmerga and the two major political parties that run Iraqi Kurdistan – besides the PUK there is also the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – have said that “war is at the doors”. And the most recent updates suggest that the sabre rattling from both sides appears to be continuing.
However there is one significant group that doesn’t appear so keen on confrontation: the ordinary people of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mostly it seems they’re not sure why these confrontations are happening – yesterday’s allies are enemies all of a sudden - and what the possible benefits to anyone could be.
“People in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are not ready to pay the price for these irrational decisions taken by officials,” Dalir Ahmad, a professor of political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH. “The events in Iraq are being driven by what is going on in Iran, Turkey and Syria. It’s the result of a regional equation and these three countries are part of it. The agendas of the three countries are fuelling the confrontations between Iraq and Kurdistan. Moreover, the two sides – Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan – are also doing this in preparation for the forthcoming provincial elections.” The latter are due to be held in April 2013.
Ahmad lamented the fact that media on both sides were fuelling the bad feelings with inflammatory stories. But he also believed that the majority of people in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq understood the seriousness of any armed conflict and would not support further fighting. “The people are aware that this is not a war between the Arabs and the Kurds,” Ahmad said. “They know it is a war between two armed militias who only understand the use of force to solve problems.”
Meanwhile many Iraqi Kurdish politicians were also calling for dialogue. “The Kurds will not abandon any part of the disputed areas. But this does not mean that they want to solve the conflict by resorting to force,” suggested Latif Sheikh Mustafa, a member of Iraqi Kurdish opposition party, the Change movement.
“Both parties bear responsibility for this conflict,” Mustafa told NIQASH. “Unfortunately neither the Iraqis nor the Kurds have many diplomats or real statesmen among them and that’s why conflicts like this develop into armed confrontations. Basically they are unable to find a solution at the meeting table so they use displays of force instead.”
“The people of Kurdistan don’t want this war,” Mustafa continued. “They know that a big part of this conflict relates to politics. They know that al-Maliki doesn’t understand that he can’t exert himself like this and violate the Constitution. Many Iraqi leaders have tried to establish themselves in Iraqi Kurdistan – but it never lasts for long.”
“And here the Kurdish people of this region don’t trust their two ruling parties; they don’t trust them taking these steps. Their leaders have told the Kurdish people before that there is big danger ahead, that will threaten their security and regional stability, and nothing has really happened. So the people just don’t believe them.”
For a large part of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan, the current events are similar to the fable about the boy who cried “wolf”, Mustafa says.
Despite troops being sent into the area by both sides, locals in Iraqi Kurdistan sill don’t seem to be singing the lyrics of that famous war song with any conviction. Whether they’ll be forced to or not, remains to be seen – but doubtless many on both sides in this war-ravaged nation are hoping they’ll never have to sing that particular song again.