Tensions in and around Kirkuk — a city within the eponymous governorate that has been under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces since 2014 — are set to ignite a new round of fighting in northern Iraq. Rudaw news agency reported on Tuesday that Iraqi forces have also taken back swaths of territory in Diyala and Nineveh provinces, with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani set to make a statement today in an attempt to avoid “civil war.”
A flurry of messages coming out of the United States, however, make it seem as though the administration of President Donald Trump was caught off guard by this, which is baffling, as the situation has been several months in the making. And all President Trump has (publicly) said so far is that the United States “like[s] the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides.”
The situation is complex: In aiding the U.S.-backed central government in Baghdad in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has taken over several cities, including the large and oil-rich Kirkuk, which was not a part of the autonomous region. The Kurds scheduled a September 25 referendum to formalize their autonomy, something opposed by Baghdad, as well as neighboring Iran and Turkey (both countries have significant Kurdish minorities and worry about similar movements within their own borders).
The referendum passed, with the participation of Kirkuk, a non-KRG area. Baghdad sent various warnings saying it did not accept the referendum results and even tried to dismiss the governor of Kirkuk. The political stakes for Barzani are too high to back down, and the same is true for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who, while enjoying the full support of the United States, really needs the Kurdish vote in the spring 2018 parliamentary elections in order to stay in office.
And now, the very thing that has been anticipated for weeks has happened: Iraqi forces, with the support of the predominately Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia, have started the operation to take back Kirkuk. And the only party that seems surprised by this is the United States.
There were two statements issued on Monday — one was a coalition statement indicating that coalition forces are supporting neither the Iraqis nor the Kurds, and that any shots fired were the result of “a misunderstanding.” However, according to Al Jazeera, which could not independently verify the information in its article:
Residents of the multi-ethnic city, home to about a million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, stayed inside and reported hearing sporadic booms they said sounded like shelling and rocket fire. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that the Peshmerga destroyed at least five Humvee armoured vehicles being used by the state-sanctioned militias following the attack south of the city.
An Iraqi Kurdish commander said the fighting with Kurdish forces caused “lots of casualties,” without providing a specific figure. Brigadier General Bahzad Ahmed said the Iraqi troops “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Tuz Khurmatu and Daquq, south of the disputed city.
A second State Department statement on Monday said the United States was “very concerned” about the situation and noted that “there is still much work to be done to defeat ISIS in Iraq, and continued tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish forces distract from this vital mission.” The Kurds hardly need a reminder about the threat posed by ISIS, which operated at the KRG’s doorstep. As of June, official estimates place the number of Peshmerga soldiers killed in the three-year-fight against ISIS at 1,760.
Experts, though, have told ThinkProgress that the fight against ISIS is a “safe cover” for what the United States really wants in Iraq: For al-Abadi to stay in power. Perhaps stating that openly might reveal the U.S. hand in Iraqi politics, the very charge statements such as the one by the State Department aim to deflect.
According to others who spoke to Reuters, the U.S. attempt at a neutral stance might backfire. “With every step [Washington] emboldened Baghdad, Iran and Turkey … each one of them thinking: ‘Well, so the Kurds are on their own, we can do whatever we like,’” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Kurdish government representative in Washington, told Reuters.
Then there’s the ever-present Iran factor. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who is also Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued his own statement on Monday, pointing to Iran’s involvement in the fight: “I am especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault. Iraqi forces must take immediate steps to de-escalate this volatile situation by ceasing their advances,” read the statement, which also included concerns that U.S.-provided “equipment” was being used to attack Kurds, who are U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.
What McCain — and others who say fighting in Iraq gives Iran the “upper hand” — don’t seem to consider is that a stable, peaceful Iraqi neighbor is far more advantageous to Iran than a war between Erbil and Baghdad, both of which are considered allies.
“A potential civil war in Iraq is not necessarily a benefit to Iran and Iran would like to avoid one if possible,” Payam Mohseni, Iran Project Director at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, told ThinkProgress in an email.
“However, like other regional governments, it is adamantly opposed to a partition of Iraq and full Kurdish independence and will work with the Iraqi government to make sure that does not happen,” he said.
Mohseni notes that “a low-intensity conflict could potentially benefit Iran as it further increases Iraqi security reliance on Tehran,” and that, “Any possibilities for reforming or disbanding them [the Hashd al-Shaabi] will become a moot point as Iraq realizes they need them beyond just confronting ISIS.”
Meanwhile, even as the fight for Kirkuk winds down — at least for now — and the thousands who fled in recent days start returning home, the standoff between Erbil and Baghdad continues. International flights into KRG airports have been suspended, Turkey has threatened sanctions while Iran shut down borders with the KRG over the weekend.