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Who Do Iraq’s ‘Disputed Territories’ Belong To? 'The Land Is For Those Who Liberate It'

Nawzat Shamdeen
What will happen to Iraq’s “disputed territories” once Sunni Muslim extremists have been driven out? Will the Iraqi Kurdish military, who now control some of it, insist on staying? Or will…
11.09.2014  |  Berlin
Iraqi Kurdish military line up to vote earlier in 2014. Pic: Getty
Iraqi Kurdish military line up to vote earlier in 2014. Pic: Getty

As the Sunni extremist group that currently controls parts of northern Iraq is slowly driven back by a combination of local and international military forces, many locals are asking what will happen to the areas that have come under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military.

Many of these areas were formerly under the control of the Iraqi government but came under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military when the Iraqi army fled as the Sunni Muslim extremists from the Islamic State group approached. Previous to this, some of these areas were also known as “disputed territories” – that is, they were areas that the Iraqi Kurdish said belonged to their semi-autonomous northern region but which the Iraqi government said belonged to Iraq proper. The issue of the disputed territories was supposed to be solved by the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.

The question now is who will control these areas when the Islamic State, or IS, group is driven out?

Many now believe that the Iraqi Kurdish military will not withdraw from the areas they have managed to take control of over the past few months. They think the areas will simply become part of Iraqi Kurdistan by default – unless, that is, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most important allies, the US government, puts pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish authorities not to do this.

“In practical terms, no matter what happens, the areas that the Iraqi Kurdish military have captured from the IS group, or that they are defending, will continue to be controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military by default,” says Ghiyath ad-Din Naqshbandi, an expert on Iraqi Kurdish politics. “Any agreement on how to solve these problems depends on the nature of Iraqi Kurdish participation in the new Iraqi government, formed by [the new Prime Minister] al-Abadi.”

“The IS group has changed the balance of power in Iraq,” Naqshbandi says. “When all this started some people thought that the IS fighters were somehow allied with the Iraqi Kurdish because, indirectly, they were doing the Iraqi Kurdish a favour, by emptying the disputed territories of the Iraqi army. But then the IS group began to make its way toward Iraqi Kurdistan, trying to make that part of their Caliphate too. And that got the Kurds involved in a war they never wanted to be involved in, in the first place – they have always considered this a sectarian conflict that has nothing to do with the Kurdish cause.”

“I think in the end the land will belong to the forces that liberate it,” Naqshbandi concludes.

Iraqi Kurdish journalist, Qassim Khader, thinks that the disputed areas currently controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military will become part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The areas populated mainly by Kurds will be under the control of the Kurdish and the areas populated mainly by Sunni Muslim Arabs will be under the control of the Arabs,” Khader says. “It is as simple as that.”

And, Khader adds, the whole issue of the disputed territories isn’t really something that the new Iraqi government will be able to deal with. In fact, Khader believes that the Iraqi Kurdish should start negotiating with local Sunni Muslims in case they begin to rebel and manage to defeat the IS group.

“The Iraqi Kurdish parties will try and convince other Iraqi political parties to acknowledge that Iraqi Kurdistan has the legal right to annex all of the disputed areas because they are no longer disputed,” another Iraqi Kurdish journalist, Badarkhan Sandi, tells NIQASH. “In the past Iraqi Kurdistan shared borders with Iraq, controlled by the government in Baghdad. But now those borders are with the IS group.”

“Baghdad was not capable of protecting the areas under its control so it cannot now claim land that is protected by the Iraqi Kurdish military – especially when Baghdad has refused to pay them their salaries or provide them with weapons,” Sandi argues.

When the IS group first started to take over territory in northern Iraq, there was plenty of talk that the extremist group were in a secret alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, against the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki.

"Some were talking about an alliance between the IS group and the Kurdish region,” says Iraqi writer, Alaa Bahjat, from Mosul. “The issue was widely discussed on Facebook and on other social networking sites. In fact, there were pictures published of checkpoints manned by Iraqi Kurdish military and IS fighters standing next to one another.”

However events in places like Sinjar and Makhmour which saw members of the Iraqi Kurdish military killed and injured, put paid to those kinds of conspiracy theories, Bahjat says.

“You cannot deny that Iraqi Kurdistan has benefited from the IS group establishing their Caliphate because the Iraqi Kurdish are able to deal with the IS group as though they were the central government,” Bahjat explains. “Iraqi Kurdistan has also been supported by the international community.”

“Iraqi Kurdistan won’t attempt to occupy the disputed territories unilaterally,” suggests Abdallah Abdul-Aziz, a writer from the Diyala province. “It will sit down with all parties to find solutions within the framework of a united Iraq. It will do this in order to avoid disputes or crises in the future,” he argues.

However some of the locals belonging to other ethnic and minority groups living in the disputed territories believe there is already a concerted process of “Kurdic-ization” going on. The term mimics the name given to the process that former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, undertook to try and replace Iraqi Kurdish locals with Arabs in northern Iraq.

Now some suggest that Iraq’s Kurds are reversing the process – that includes Aruba Esmail Bek, one of the leaders of the Yazidi people. She has criticized the behaviour of the Iraqi Kurdish military in the disputed territories, especially those where her people were expelled, murdered or captured.

That opinion is shared by Sarkon Saleh, a Christian activist from the Christian-majority town of Qaraqosh in the Ninawa province. He too believes that, like the Yazidis, local Christians will eventually want some sort of an independent region where they can choose who rules over them.

“Many will demand the creation of their own province on the Ninawa Plain,” Saleh argues. “This is because of their feelings of disappointment in the central government as well as the Iraqi Kurdish authorities. They know that these two governments have not done enough to protect them.”

Additionally local Arabs are also complaining that the Iraqi Kurdish are treating them badly. The Iraqi Kurdish military are taking revenge on them, they say, because they believe that local Arabs collaborated with the IS group and their Iraqi Kurdish neighbours no longer trust them.

And the conspiracy theories are back too, with some local Arabs believing that Iraq’s Kurds are trying to claim disputed territories under the guise of fighting the extremist IS group.