On Monday, October 16th, Iraqi military forces made a decisive action in the ongoing conflict between Iraqi national government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which governs a disputed territory known as Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilethe Iraqi federal government claims that Iraqi Kurdistan is only an autonomous region within Iraq, the KRG supports independence for the region. The Kurds, a Middle Eastern ethnic group distinct from the Arabs and the Persians, in Iraq have long supported secession. Since World War I, when the map of the Middle East was redrawn, the Kurds have wished for their own country, with territory primarily carved out of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.
The Iraqi military on that Monday besieged Kirkuk, an Iraqi city that has been under the control of the KRG since it was captured in 2014. However, given that Kirkuk was never within the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraqi federal government has claimed that Kirkuk has always been under federal Iraqi control. So, in an attempt to recapture the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered Iraqi military forces, with assistance from Iranian-supported Shia militant groups (Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU), to besiege Kirkuk. Given the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurd army force, not having equivalent training to the Iraqi military and the PMU, Iraq successfully captured the city, sending many Kurdish families, as well as KRG official, Najmaddin Karim, back to Irbil, the capital of the territory.
Following this, the joint Iraqi-Iranian army continued north, capturing Sinjar, Bashiqa, and Makhmour, among others, all of which was territory the KRG hopes to incorporate into a formal Kurdistan state. Additionally, much of this territory had oil fields that made up the cornerstone of the Kurdish economy.
This comes only a few weeks following the independence referendum, in which Kurds voted nearly unanimously in support of independence. This referendum, however, was nonbinding, and did not require Iraq, nor other countries with significant Kurdish populations, such as Turkey and Iran, to recognize it. Fearing loss of territory, the Iraqi government has been hostile to the KRG, and has threatened military action should they proceed with secessionist talks.
This loss of Kirkuk has led to tensions between the two major parties within Iraqi Kurdistan, with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) accusing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of selling out to Iran, due to PUK forces being the first to retreat from their posts south of Kirkuk, the path the Iraqi-Iranian army entered.
This clash has serious implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East. Rumors of Iran’s Quds Force head Qassem Suleimani, as well as political actors such as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Hadi al-Ameri, has stirred fears in the United States that Iran had masterminded the situation to bolster their power in the region. This fits into Iran’s history of vying for power in Iraq. This may add urgency to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Deal due to Iran acquiring its lost power in the region.
Additionally, Peshmerga commander Goran Iz al-Din has proclaimed that this “is the beginning of the war between the Kurds and Baghdad.” This has alarmed the United States, who fears that a divided Iraq may hinder the fight against the Islamic State, which President Trump has prioritized in American-Middle Eastern foreign policy. Should two factions within Iraq go to war, the weapons the United States has supplied to each army may be used on each other, and more energy focused on their conflict, rather than the fight against ISIS.
Ultimately, a divided Iraq would make the fight against the Islamic State more difficult, as would other countries, such as Iran and Turkey, focusing energy on combatting Kurds. These developments have cast uncertainty over the future of the Kurdish people, and may alter the course of American foreign policy.
By Rebecca Eneyni, Staff Writer