The convoy of Kurdish army jeeps suddenly made a U-turn on the road from Kirkuk — which had only just come under the control of KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) forces — to Hawija, a Sunni town where the flag of ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had been flying for a few days. Without realising it, the driver of the lead vehicle had passed the last Kurdish checkpoint and was heading for the ISIL positions.
This place had only recently become the border, and the concrete buildings of the checkpoint, once occupied by the Iraqi security forces, had just changed hands. The faded colours of the Iraqi federal flag were still visible on the wall, but the young peshmergas (1) who had moved in had already raised their own Kurdish national flag. A few hundred metres away, the road passed under a bridge: on the other side were ISIL forces. After two days without incident, nobody wanted to tempt fate. The Kurdish soldiers were only lightly armed, and were resting; there would be no fighting today.
“We are here to secure Kurdish territory abandoned by the Iraqi army, not to become involved in a civil war,” said General Sherko Fatih, commander of the Kurdish forces in the area. Iraqi Kurdistan, which has not been under Baghdad’s control since the end of the Gulf War (1990-91), and won constitutional recognition of its autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein, was able to realise its territorial ambitions when the central government, dominated by Shia Arabs, lost control of the north of Iraq.
After the attacks on Mosul and Sunni-populated areas by an alliance of Islamists, nationalists and Baathists advancing behind ISIL insurgents, the Iraqi government forces scattered, abandoning their bases and weapons, and creating a security vacuum — which the Kurdish peshmergas were quick to fill — in the “disputed territories”, land claimed since 2003 both by the main Kurdish political parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — and by the central government.
New Kurdish border
The real front is in the towns captured by ISIL, where the Sunni movement faces resistance from militias and volunteers who have responded to the call for jihad by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shia authority. On the margins of this conflict, the Kurds have consolidated territorial gains. The new frontier between Iraqi Kurdistan and the insurgent-occupied areas, 1,050km long, runs southeast-northwest across Iraq, from Khanaqin, near the Iranian border, to the Kurdish areas of Syria, threatened by ISIL and since July 2012 under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Though there are frequent border skirmishes, it is not outright war. A former senior Baathist figure from Kirkuk said: “The common enemy — the Shia central state — no longer exists in northern Iraq, so it is in the interest of Kurds and Sunni Arabs to maintain good neighbourly relations.”
Iraq’s sectarian division has created a paradox: Sunni Arab nationalists, who make up a significant proportion of ISIL, talk of the need for good relations with the Kurds. “There may be local clashes, with some loss of life, but that is only because the Sunni movement is not unified or sufficiently well controlled by its leaders. At higher levels, people are keen to avoid trouble,” said a source close to the insurgents. This has allowed the Kurdish movement in Iraq to achieve a key demand — control of the city and province of Kirkuk (the “Kurdish Jerusalem”). These are home to sizeable Turkmen and Arab minorities, whose fate had been undecided since 2005 because of a failure to implement article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which calls for a census and a referendum on whether the city should become part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The withdrawal of Iraqi government forces from Kirkuk has underlined the de facto supremacy of the Kurds. They have dominated the provincial council since the US invasion of 2003, and have now appropriated abandoned military equipment and gained a monopoly on military power, which they will be reluctant to give up if the central government attempts to regain control.
This has dispelled the legal and institutional fictions on which power sharing between Baghdad and Irbil (capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan) in post-Saddam Iraq is supposed to be based (2). The Kurds, who seized part of the huge Kirkuk oilfield by force in 2008, could now control it all. Soon after the Iraqi withdrawal, the Kurdish natural resources minister, Ashti Hawrami, announced infrastructure projects that would make it possible to pump oil officially still under federal control, and mix it with oil produced on KRG territory. The Kurds would then export it autonomously, via Turkey. On 21 June the first delivery of crude oil produced in Iraqi Kurdistan was shipped from the Turkish port of Ceyhan to Ashkelon, in Israel. The Kurds could force Baghdad, whose sovereignty over Iraq’s territory still has international recognition, to grant them favourable terms.
Through its prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG has declared itself in favour of an autonomous Sunni Arab region centring on Mosul. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that Iraqi Kurdistan’s growing strength as an autonomous region precludes its participation in the Iraqi political scene. A number of political players are involved, including Turkey and Iran — because of Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shia politicians — as well as the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. It is still in the interests of the Kurdish elite to use their influence with the Iraqi government, even when borders are becoming blurred and the number of players — government and non-government — is growing.
The Iraqi Kurds are not a cohesive body with a clear, shared agenda. The KDP and PUK are still, to a certain extent, party-states, each with its own territory and armed forces; they pursue their own interests, and occasionally divergent alliances. The KDP dominates the oil and gas sector, and is diplomatically aligned with Turkey, because of Turkey’s ambitions in energy. The PUK, itself facing deep internal divisions, has better relations with Iran and, indirectly, with the PKK, which opposes the influence of the KDP in Turkish Kurdistan and especially in Syrian Kurdistan, under the control of local allies.
Though the leaders on both sides are keen to minimise these divergences, the chaos in Iraq tends to exacerbate them. According to General Jabar Yawar, secretary general of the KRG’s armed forces ministry, the PUK still dominates southeastern Iraqi Kurdistan and is on good terms with the Iraqi army, which still holds a small area before the Iranian border. The KDP, which dominates the northwest, is more inclined to seek common ground with elements of the Sunni insurgency. Kirkuk’s military bases and resources lie not only on the border between Arab Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, but also at the meeting point of the zones of influence of the PUK and KDP. It has been dominated by the PUK since the fall of Saddam but, since the departure of the Iraqi armed forces, has become an object of rivalry between the two Kurdish blocs.
This tendency to division is stronger still in the territories formerly disputed with Baghdad, owing to the diversity of the population. Besides the ethnic divisions between Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, there are sectarian divides: all three communities are split along Shia/Sunni lines. In the gaps between the areas controlled by the PUK and KDP — jointly or separately — armed militias have been formed, all founded on a sense of being “other” than their neighbours. All include members of the former federal security forces. Each finds distant allies against its nearby enemies.
So Iraqi Kurdistan’s new frontier is a patchwork of checkpoints, enclaves and pockets, held by different groups whose authority is based mainly on military strength, all fighting, competing, collaborating, or ignoring each other. Ten kilometres from the centre of Kirkuk, where life continues as normal, the Shia Turkmen community of Taza gives a snapshot of the situation. The neighbouring village of Beshir, also Shia Turkmen, was captured not long ago by Sunnis who had been relocated to the area under Saddam’s regime in 1986, but were expelled by the original inhabitants in 2003. The ISIL insurgency gave the Sunnis an opportunity to retake the land and property of their neighbours, with some reports of torture. In the silent streets of Taza, I saw young men carrying weapons on their way to the mosque, where Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s local representative, dressed in military uniform except for his turban, was calling the faithful to martyrdom in the cause of recapturing Beshir.
In the courtyard of the mosque were greying members of the Shia Dawa Party, formerly exiled to Iran, who had come back to Iraq wearing the headdress and beards of the Revolutionary Guards. They were preparing for a meeting chaired by the commanders of the Badr militia, who are coordinating their efforts with the Shia militias established six months ago by the central government. A few kilometres away, with a Soviet tank and a few armoured vehicles that the PUK had discovered in Saddam’s barracks in 2003, a hundred peshmergas had taken up position on the canal that separates Taza from the Sunni lines. They controlled the bridge over the waterway; a PKK delegation passing through had fastened to the bridge a flag with a picture of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, currently a prisoner in Turkey.
By the canal, a dozen teenagers carrying guns sheltered from the sun in a UN Refugee Agency tent, under a flag to the glory of Ali (3). A young man — who couldn’t have been 10 years old in 2003 — carried a Kalashnikov modified to look like a US armed forces assault rifle; he wore his battledress over a fake Olympique Lyonnais football shirt and was having his photo taken with a deserter from the Iraqi police who had answered Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s call to arms. Gunfire sounded in the distance.
Allan Kaval is a journalist.
(1) Literally “those who confront death”; the Peshmerga is now the official name of the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
(3) Son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, considered by Shia Muslims to be his divinely appointed successor.
Translated by Charles Goulden.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.