While the rest of the world was speculating over a possible foray by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) into the heart of Baghdad, Iraq’s Kurds moved quickly on Thursday to seize the city of Kirkuk, the crown jewel and potential capital of a future Kurdish independent state.
It was a strategic opportunity too good for the Kurds to pass up, and as ISIL fighters spoke of heading south rather than east, the Kurds stepped in to protect Kirkuk should the ISIL change its mind.
Now with ISIL setting its sights on Baghdad and the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Kurds are doing what they wanted to do more than 10 years ago: reclaim Kirkuk and begin incorporating it into their semiautonomous region in the north of the country.
“The Kurds regret not seizing Kirkuk when Saddam [Hussein] was removed from power,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “They held back because of the Americans and the Turks, but now they’ve carried out this coup with Turkey’s blessing.”
Long an alienated but resilient power in northern Iraq, feared by its neighbors Turkey and Iran, which have their own restive ethnic Kurdish populations, the Kurds have been sitting on their hands, partaking in the politics of the central government in Baghdad and prioritizing national unity over their ambitions of independence.
But that wait may now be over.
A long-disputed prize
Because of Maliki’s need to try to stem the gains of the ISIL, the Kurds suddenly have a pass to claim a long-disputed prize.
When U.S. forces toppled Saddam from power in the spring of 2003, observers at the time pointed to Kirkuk, sitting on massive reserves of oil, as the tinderbox of Iraq.
It had become a tumultuous mix of Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkmen after the city had undergone decades of Arabization under Saddam, in which he expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds and installed Iraqi families there to bolster the Arab population.
After his removal, the Kurds returned en masse — squatting in soccer stadiums, settling in abandoned government buildings and living in mud huts, strengthening their numbers as they waited for the central government to hold a referendum on the status of Kirkuk. But that vote has been regularly postponed.
Now, after Iraqi army and police forces abandoned their posts in nearby Mosul this week, highly trained and highly disciplined ranks of Peshmerga, the Kurdish security forces, have taken over border positions in Kirkuk to defend it against any ISIL advance. They’re not likely to go anywhere.
“I don’t expect the Kurds to give Kirkuk back that easily,” says Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who served as executive director of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.
“In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they take Mosul too, especially if Maliki asks for help.”
Maliki’s options are now so limited, he has called on everyone from friendly countries to ordinary Iraqi citizens to take up arms and fend off the Sunni fundamentalist ISIL, whose reach spans from parts of eastern Syria — where they are also battling Bashar al-Assad’s government — to Iraq’s western and northern provinces. As he waits for an attack from the north, Maliki will likely have to relax his fight with the Kurds.
It was only Monday that Baghdad was planning to sue the semiautonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over the oil exports it was shipping through Turkey without the central government’s blessing. But if he wants to keep the Kurds on his side now, Maliki and his government may have to pay up on oil revenues promised under national agreements that have been withheld.
“Maliki is going to have to agree to basically everything Kurds want. He’s going to have to pay their bills and allow their exports,” Serwer said.
At the same time, the Kurds will have to deal with the incoming hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced from the fighting in Mosul who are streaming into Kirkuk and across the Tigris River into its semiautonomous region.
Moreover, despite Turkey’s cooperation with the KRG over its oil exports, it’s not clear how Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will react to Thursday’s developments. Still, signs point toward the Kurds’ being the lesser of two problems in Ankara’s eyes.
“If you’re Turkey and your choice is having a Sunni caliphate on your border or a secular Kurdistan, you’re going to take the secular Kurdistan every day,” Serwer said. “The Turks are making a lot of money in Kurdistan.”
However, for Maliki, appeasing the Kurds will only heighten the concerns of his strongest regional ally, Iran. Tehran has long opposed any Kurdish autonomy because of its own ethnic Kurdish population seeking autonomy in western Iran, and it has been watching the ISIL’s advances with growing alarm. According to some reports, it has sent in members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to protect Shia shrines that ISIL fighters are aiming to destroy.
Amid this uncertainty, Baghdad, a city more heavily Shia in population since the civil war in 2007, is preparing to face a fiercely Sunni foe made up of former elements of the Iraqi army under Saddam. The near-term dangers of Shia militias backed by Iran once again on its streets have all the conditions set for more bloodshed and another downward spiral for Iraq, this time with even greater regional consequences.
The flight of the Iraqi security forces from Mosul, leaving weaponry and tanks behind, has enabled the ISIL to consolidate its position on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. From here, their eyes remain on Baghdad.
Yet the ISIL fighters may not have the numbers to fend off the highly organized Peshmerga, whose name means “those who confront death.” An ISIL defeat by the Peshmerga would allow the Kurds to keep their hands not only on Kirkuk but perhaps fight to take Mosul too. It’s unlikely Maliki could rouse his troops to stop them.