In Northern Iraq, Kurdish Military Likely To Return To Lands They Lost
In October, the Kurdish military were kicked out of Kirkuk for political reasons. But after recent Islamic State attacks, they may return – after the resolution of tactical, political and military problems.
A dark day for Kurdish dreams: Iraqi army forces advance toward the center of Kirkuk on October 16. (photo: احمد الربيعي)
Moves are afoot to return the Iraqi Kurdish military to areas around the northern city of Kirkuk. The rumoured plan to return Kurdish troops to these areas is due to a recent increase in the activity of the extremist group known as the Islamic State there.
Over the past two weeks, an estimated 22 people have been killed around Tuz Khurmatu, Hawija and Daquq, some of them by Islamic State fighters who set up fake checkpoints and disguised themselves as pro-government forces. After the recent rash of attacks, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a Saturday speech that these areas should be kept secure by having all of the pertinent actors in the area coordinate with one another.
The international coalition had specified that only certain sorts of Kurdish fighters could return to the disputed territories.
It appears this was not just idle, Kurd-pleasing talk. Several other factors indicate that Kurdish security forces could soon be brought back in to help keep Kirkuk and surrounds safe from the Islamic State, or IS, group.
The Kurdish military – colloquially known as the Peshmerga – were pushed out of Kirkuk and other areas in October, following the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on whether to secede from the rest of Iraq or not. Having warned Kurdish authorities not to hold the popular referendum, the Iraqi authorities pushed back, sending government troops up north to take control of the so-called disputed territories – these are areas that the Kurdish have long maintained belong to their semi-autonomous region but which the Iraqi government believes belong to Iraqi proper. Up until October, many of the disputed territories had been under the de-facto control of the Kurdish – they had gained even more control during the security crisis - even though their disputed status was far from resolved. After October though, the territories were back in Iraqi hands.
On March 25, a US and UK military delegation visited the Ministry of Defence in Baghdad, where they also met with representatives from the Kurdish military. The purpose of the meetings was to discuss the formation of a joint defence force, featuring both Iraqi and Kurdish military, in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. It would be run out of an operations room based at the K1 camp, southwest of Kirkuk, where there are also apparently US soldiers present.
“Efforts are being made to bring the Peshmerga back to areas that were taken over by the Iraqi army. This is because of the re-emergence of these extremist armed groups,” Rasoul Karkui, a senior Kurdish commander in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “And especially on the borders of Kirkuk province. It’s a sign that the Peshmerga are able to fight terrorists.”
While the Iraqi government has not yet officially requested that the Kurdish troops return to the area, the return was approved during meetings with the military from the international coalition, Rasoul noted.
An official with the Kurdish military, who could not be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media, told NIQASH that the commanders with the international coalition had specified that only certain sorts of Kurdish fighters could return to the disputed territories. The majority of Kurdish troops are affiliated with, and paid by, one or other of the region’s two largest political parties. They have not been truly independent or non-partisan since the 1940s.
Bad feelings ran high in October 2017. This graffiti equates the Peshmerga with the IS group.
And these may apparently not return to the disputed territories, the official said. However, soldiers from the so-called joint brigades, which have around 45,000 members, may do so. Basically, these joint brigades share leadership and are seen as less partisan than the troops controlled by the political parties. He said that the Iraqi government had said that the 1st and 2nd brigades could go to Kirkuk, and the 9th brigade could go to Daquq and Tuz Khurmatu. These joint Kurdish brigades have had US military training.
A senior officer of the 1st brigade said he and his men were ready to return to fight the IS group and to protect citizens in Kirkuk. “But until now there has been no agreement reached as to where we would be posted or where our lines are to be,” he confirmed, adding that location could be a contentious issue.
Because of the increase in strength of IS fighters in the area, members of the Shiite Muslim militias posted in the Kirkuk area said they too were aware that the Kurdish military would soon be returning to their posts. But, they stressed, that return must be coordinated.
“Their return should be supervised by the operations room and by authorities in Baghdad and Erbil,” argued Nazim Kahya, a senior member of the militias in the area. “The forces in the area should also be consulted in order to avoid any tensions.”
“We are well aware of the Kurdish military meeting with the international coalition to talk about how the Kurdish will return,” Kahya added. “From what we know, there is now a delay because of a difference of opinions. Some Iraqi forces want the Peshmerga to be stationed only at checkpoints while the Peshmerga want to be able to work in all parts of Kirkuk.”
Kirkuk’s governor, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, refused to confirm any of this on the record. He would only say that the Iraqi government has not yet sent a formal letter requesting that the Kurdish military return to duty in Kirkuk.
Local observers say that the decision is not just military, it is also political. If the Kurdish military are allowed back into Kirkuk, it indicates that the Iraqi military have been unable to prevent the return of the extremists and keep the city and surrounds safe. It could be seen as a loss of face.
“The Kurdish parties want to see the Peshmerga re-establish their presence in Kirkuk so they don’t lose the city politically, in the same way they lost it militarily,” suggests Hamdi Kuli, a legal and military affairs expert and former judge.
Obviously leaders of the Kurdish military would like to return to the area as soon as possible. However it seems far more likely that the Iraqi politicians will drag the decision out until after the federal elections in mid-May. It would be a risk for the current government and prime minister to bring back the Kurds before then because, on one hand, their return would strengthen the Kurdish politicians’ popularity in Kirkuk and, on the other, it would also bring criticism from the government’s non-Kurdish political opponents.