The government of the semi-autonomous Iraqi state of Iraqi Kurdistan is already being described as the “winner” in the country’s current crisis. Security forces from inside the province, which has its own legislation, parliament and military, have taken over parts of Iraq that the Iraqi Army fled from.
And this has included parts of Iraq known as the “disputed territories” – that is terrain that the Iraqi Kurdish ethnic minority say should belong to them but which the government in Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper. Iraqi Kurdistan has been fighting with Baghdad over these areas for years with no real progress – and now, thanks to extremists, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own homeland finally have what they want.
But these so-called wins will also bring new challenges. Many of the areas the Iraqi Kurdish now control are uncomfortably close to territories controlled by Sunni Muslim extremists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, who also overran Mosul. Many of them also have significant non-Kurdish populations, some of whom have been resistant to Kurdish control in the past.
Additionally, if this crisis ends and ISIS is defeated, then it is highly likely that Baghdad will not accept Iraqi Kurdish control of these areas as a fait accompli.
As ISIS has advanced over the past week, the Iraqi Army has often abandoned its posts. And Iraqi Kurdish military forces, known as the Peshmerga, have filled the vacuum. The Peshmerga were often welcomed by locals because of their ability to provide security, or at the very least, because they are a far more appealing option than the radical Islamist group.
Some of the areas which the Peshmerga now control were already under de-facto Iraqi Kurdish control – something common in the disputed territories. These areas are also populated mostly by Iraqi Kurdish inhabitants, or in the case of areas in Ninawa, by Yazidi, an ethno-religious group closely associated with the Kurds. Those areas include Khanaqin in Diyala province and Bashiqa and Sinjar in Ninawa province.
But other areas are far more “disputed” in both an administrative and a military sense: Places like Tuz Khurmatu in the Salahaddin province and Sadiya and Jalawla in the Diyala province. There one finds large Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim Arab populations, as well as locals of Turkmen ethnicity alongside the Iraqi Kurdish. There have been more problems in these areas and there are likely to be more in the future.
For example, Sadiya and Jalawla are volatile areas west of Khanaqin whose diverse populations have layers of conflicting political loyalties. The Iraqi Kurdish are fighting for them because historically both were part of Khanaqin, and were majority Kurdish. In fact, administratively, they are still part of the Khanaqin district.
However today the Iraqi Kurdish population has been reduced to an estimated 20 percent. Over the past few years these areas have been among the most dangerous areas in Iraq, with extremist groups mainly targeting Shiite Kurdish and Turkmen ethnicities. As a result many Iraqi Kurds have left for safer places like Khanaqin or gone further north into Iraqi Kurdistan proper, into the Sulaymaniyah province. There has been no Iraqi Kurdish military presence in either town except those protecting Iraqi Kurdish political party offices.
Today the majority of the population in both areas is a mixture of Turkmen and Arabs; the Iraqi army and police have controlled both areas.
The situation grows even more complicated in Jalawla: The dominant Arab tribe, Karawi, has fought the Kurds in the past, first alongside former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and then with the Iraq Army, after 2003. Now they appear to be allied with ISIS, whom they joined up with when the Iraqi army left the area last week. These dynamics do not point to an easy win for the Iraqi Kurdish.
Turkmen populations in Tuz Khurmatu in the Salahaddin province, Kirkuk and Tal Afar in Ninawa present a different set of issues.
Turkmen in Tuz Khurmatu say they want the Iraqi Kurdish military there to protect them – in the words of one local, “anything is better than ISIS” – but they’re still worried about their presence. This concern stems from years of distrust between the Turkmen and Iraqi Kurdish political parties.
The Iraqi Kurdish say that the Turkmen just oppose anything they want to do, whereas the Turkmen think that the Iraqi Kurdish are trying to take Tuz Khurmatu and force them to leave or turn them into second-class citizens in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Against this backdrop, consider the fact that the Iraqi Kurdish also forced the Turkmen security forces to disarm. This makes some local Turkmen think that, not only will the Iraqi Kurdish fail to protect their areas, they will also fail to share power if they have it.
These feelings were expressed in a list of declarations from Turkmen leaders in Tuz Khurmatu. The leaders stated that, “Peshmerga protection was appreciated” but that they wanted “balance between groups to be restored in the district” and senior Turkmen military and intelligence officers should be part of the security forces of the city.
A similar declaration was made by senior Turkmen politician, Arshad al-Salihi, in Kirkuk: He has demanded that joint defence forces secure Kirkuk, not just Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Another issue confronting any Iraqi Kurdish envelopment of Tuz Khurmatu is the Shiite factor: The majority of Turkmen there are Shiite Muslims and have become highly involved with Shiite Muslim political parties – such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s –in past years. Locals will not be willing to give up this access to power, nor will the central government be willing to concede such a strategic location with a large Shiite Muslim population.
The Tuz Khurmatu sub district of Suleiman Beg presents another problem altogether, this one more to do with ISIS’ frontline. It has been taken over by ISIS while Iraqi Kurdish forces control the district’s centre, just ten kilometres away. Another village, even closer to the district’s centre is also controlled by ISIS. Clearly this situation is not sustainable. Not only is it a threat to Tuz Khurmatu but whoever controls Suleiman Beg also controls the busy main road from Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk to Baghdad – this road is currently impassable.
In fact, on the night of June 17, fighting broke out between the Turkmen forces and ISIS in Amirli, the sub district bordering on Suleiman Beg.
And then there are Sinjar and Rabia. Sinjar, or Shingal in Kurdish, is another disputed territory but it doesn’t present any problems when it comes to local support. The local population is Yazidi, most of whom identify as Kurdish, and who vote overwhelmingly for Iraqi Kurdish political parties. There was a limited Iraqi army and police presence here but the Iraqi Kurdish already controlled most of the district’s administration and security.
Sinjar’s problems are geographic. Except for Rabia to the northwest, Sinjar is now surrounded on all sides by ISIS-controlled territory, with Baiji to the south and southwest, Mosul to the east, and the porous Syrian border to the west.
Rabia, a sub-district of Tel Afar, was not a disputed territory before ISIS attacked and previously it was administered by the Iraqi army. It was only taken over by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces after the Iraqi army left, in order to prevent ISIS taking control. And it is important for two reasons. Firstly, it is the site of a strategic border crossing into Syria, and secondly, it has the only road that Sinjar locals can use to reach Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders and the Iraqi Kurdish province of Dohuk.
In both places, the Iraqi Kurdish forces clashed with ISIS and those clashes led to the loss of lives. The Iraqi Kurdish are now digging a border to the south of Sinjar to protect it from ISIS-controlled Baiji, and possibly to denote the future borders of their state.
For now, Sinjar and Rabia are, locals say, “back to normal”. People can travel to Dohuk through Rabia and the first lorry load of supplies from Mosul arrived on Friday. But how long this will last in such a dangerous and contested area, is anyone’s guess.
All of this is why calling the Iraqi Kurdish “winners” in this conflict is premature.
For now, due to circumstances, intense fear of ISIS and the fact that Baghdad is distracted, non-Kurdish populations in these trouble spots are willing to accept Iraqi Kurdish military and to be controlled by authorities from the semi-autonomous province.
The Iraqi Kurdish have already said publically that they are not going anywhere. Both the official spokesman for the Peshmerga, Jabbar Yawar, and Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish regional authorities, have gone on the record saying that these moves are not temporary and that these areas will be administered by the Kurds.
However if the Iraqi Kurds want to stay in these areas in the longer term, they will have to overcome mistrust within local leadership and be willing to share power with other parties and ethno-sectarian groups. The populations are surely willing: Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs in Tuz Khurmatu, Diyala and Ninawa are more than happy to live together. They even intermarry. And the problem they say has always been “the parties”.
The Iraqi Kurdish are also going to have to deal with Baghdad’s displeasure at the one-sided decision to start running these areas as well as their new, potentially destabilizing neighbours, ISIS, or the Baathist or tribal elements in Mosul.
For all of these reasons, Iraqi Kurdistan’s celebrations need to be tempered and reasonable plans for any future possibilities need to be drafted.
(Christine van den Toorn is an American educator who worked at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah between 2009 and 2013. With additional reporting by Mohammed Hussein and Nawaf Ashur in Sulaymaniyah)