Baghdad-Erbil showdown generates new dangers for Iraq
A showdown between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil has generated a new set of dangers for Iraq, just as the country’s army and military allies edge closer to defeating the Islamic State (ISIS).
Iraqi forces, backed by the predominately Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias, have retaken most of the areas that had been under Kurdish peshmerga control since 2014, most notably the oil-rich, multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.
Peshmerga fighters either fled or voluntarily handed over control to federal forces as part of a deal with Baghdad in most cases but instances of chaos and clashes continue.
Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil mounted after KRG President Masoud Barzani went ahead with an independence referendum for Iraq’s Kurdistan, plunging the country into further division and instability.
The fallout has allowed Iran, which wields great influence on many Shia and Kurdish politicians in Iraq, to play a greater role in shaping events. Tehran’s role is illustrated by reports of mediations brokered by Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s al-Quds force.
Prior to the referendum, key Shia politicians distanced themselves from Iran and considered forming political alliances with secular, Sunni and Kurdish politicians. Now, Iran, which opposed the referendum, is being touted as the country that preserved Iraq’s territorial integrity.
As Iran’s role increases, the United States seems to be helplessly playing catch-up while events unfold beyond its control. US national security adviser H.R. McMaster said he warned Barzani that the referendum may benefit Iran and is ill-timed but the Kurdish leader went ahead with it.
Iraqi forces are readying to launch the final assault against ISIS militants in Anbar province but analysts said they fear developments might offer a second life to ISIS or create conditions for similar jihadist groups to emerge. The tensions and future clashes between Iraqi forces and peshmerga fighters could allow ISIS — their common enemy — to resurface elsewhere.
There are also fears that a Kurdish civil war could break out as the northern region’s main rivals — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — accuse each other of treason and responsibility for the region’s woes. Most peshmerga fighters are loyal to one faction or the other.
The two sides were embroiled in a civil war from 1994-97, when the region was split between the KDP, which controlled Erbil and Dohuk, and the PUK, which controlled Sulaimaniyah. Today, commentators are talking about the possibility of two regional administrations replacing the KDP-dominated KRG.
The KRG’s cancellation of Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections, which had been scheduled for November 1, is likely to inflame tensions among the region’s Kurds. The Gorran Movement (Movement for Change) supporters are most likely to be affected. The party has the second largest number of seats in parliament, after the KDP, but no peshmerga fighters are loyal to it or its top officials. Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly