The decision by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to hold a referendum on independence has proven to be a terrible miscalculation for the its president, Masoud Barzani, who announced on Sunday that he will not seek to renew his term of office when it expires on 1 November. The 25 September 2017 referendum was touted by Barzani as a momentous occasion in the Kurdish quest for secession from Iraq, and in the century-old struggle for a Kurdish state. It was also a reflection of the internal political struggles within the KRG, and an attempt by Barzani to retain favour with his constituency and solidify his legacy before his term ended. He went ahead with the move despite warnings and even threats from regional and global powers, including KRG allies Turkey and the USA. Indeed, the only state that supported the referendum and its results was Israel.
The referendum resulted in ninety-three per cent of those who voted supporting independence. In response, Iraqi military and police forces and Iran-backed militias clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga forces mid-October south of the disputed Kirkuk region, and, within days, Iraqi troops (re)took control of oil fields that were a key KRG funding source. With its military routing, loss of key finances, continued threats by Turkey, and the Iraqi central government demanding an annulment of the referendum results, the KRG offered freezing the results and opening talks with Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, rejected the offer.
Following the announcement of the referendum, many countries in the region and globally, as well as the United Nations and the European Union, had discouraged the vote, calling for dialogue between the KRG and the Baghdad government instead. The KRG’s largest regional ally, Turkey, urged Barzani to reconsider, warning it might ‘exacerbate regional instability’. On 18 September, Iraq’s Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional. Turkey, and Iran, along with Baghdad, also threatened an economic blockade. Nevertheless, the referendum went ahead, with Kurds in the KRG and Kirkuk region being asked whether they wanted the KRG and neighbouring Kurdish areas to become an independent state. The electoral commission announced a resounding majority resounding majority ‘yes’ vote in the three governorates of Erbil, Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah and in oil-rich Kirkuk.Although Barzani said the outcome would have no immediate administrative effect, he did, however, use the referendum for political manoeuvring near to the end of his term.
Barzani – president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since its establishment in 2005, and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – has already exceeded his term limit, which expired in 2013 and was extended until 2015. His current mandate will expire in November 2017, when elections will take place to vote in a successor. Barzani’s pushing the referendum, despite advice against it – including from many Kurds, reflected his desire to gain the title of ‘bringer of Kurdish independence’. However, the loss of the Kirkuk oil fields, Kurdish anger at his miscalculation, opposition from his erstwhile allies, and bombardment by Iraq’s central government have forced his hand. With the prospect of losing even more territory, he has encountered growing animosity from rival political parties, especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose Peshmerga forces were the first to withdraw from the south of Kirkuk, leading to a takeover by Iraqi troops. In a statement on 25 October 2017, the KRG announced that its leadership was prepared to declare a ceasefire and engage in dialogue with Baghdad. The Iraqi government rejected the offer saying it would only allow the total ‘abolition of the referendum and the adherence to the constitution’.
The Iraqi Kurdish independence bid clearly lacks support from countries in the region and elsewhere in the world. Leading up to the referendum, countries with Kurdish minority populations, including Turkey, Syria and Iran, vocally opposed it, fearing it would inspire Kurds in their respective countries to seek greater autonomy or spur them on to their own independence campaigns. This criticism has continued even after the referendum, leading to a tripartite alliance between Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and revealing that even though they disagree on many issues, they all agree that an independent Kurdistan cannot exist. Seeming to express the view of all these countries, Turkey’s president threatened a harsh blockade against the KRG that would cause it to ‘starve’.
Only Israel has thus far pledged support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is allegedly lobbying for global actors such as the USA, Russia and Germany to support Kurdish independence in Iraq, Syria and Iran. He described the KRG as a ‘strategic place’, and called on ‘someone’ to ‘[give] them weaponry, and whatever else’. His campaign seeks to garner Kurdish support to undermine the resistance of Arab states and Iran to Israel. More importantly, Israel hopes a Kurdish state can be used to legitimise Israel’s desire to legitimise for itself the status of an ethnic (Jewish) state.
With the KRG’s offer to ‘freeze’ the referendum’s results, and Barzani’s announcement about his role after November, it seems the KRG may be conceding defeat and succumbing to pressure, if only temporarily. The referendum, which appeared to have been Barzani’s ace card to achieve political popularity before the next election, backfired for him. Before his announcement, there were growing calls within Iraqi Kurdistan for his resignation, as his opponents argued that his political use of the referendum was a costly miscalculation that resulted in the loss of Kirkuk. Of course, Barzani withdrawing from his position in November is not the end of his political role. Members of his family are well-ensconced in the KRG government, and the Barzani family has controlled the KDP since 1946. Over the next weeks, Baghdad will likely be coerced to negotiate with the KRG, especially if Israel is able to lobby the USA to pressure Abadi to move in that direction. In the long run, however, Israeli support could disadvantage the Kurds against powerful regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of whom will use that to de-legitimise Kurdish claims. A war over the question of an independent Kurdistan is the last thing any state in the region (except Israel) wants, especially as the region remains mired with the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the devastating wars in Yemen and Libya.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The 16 October declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of the beginning of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS) was welcomed by a range of forces in the Middle East and globally. However, there was immediately an attempt to address fears of potential sectarian violence that might be unleashed upon the liberation of the city, IS’s de facto Iraqi capital.
At a conference of Iraqi tribes held in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to support the Mosul offensive, tribal leaders from Nineveh, the province in which Mosul is located, insisted Shi'a militias should not be involved in the military attempt to liberate Mosul. They feared that Mosul’s Sunnis will be blamed for IS’s crimes, and were afraid of revenge attacks. They based their fears on reports that more than 700 Sunni males had disappeared after Shi'a militias captured Fallujah, and that looting and mass killings occurred in Tikrit when that city was liberated from IS.
Responding to concerns about sectarian reprisals, Iraqi Kurdish leaders promised that their Peshmerga forces would not enter Mosul, and the USA conditioned its air support on Shi'a militias not entering the city. The alliance of Shi'a militias, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), one of the more successful anti-IS forces, has not been excluded from the battle, however. As the Iraqi army advances from the south and west, and Peshmerga forces conduct a multipronged assault from the north and east, the PMF headed westwards to block IS’s escape route from Mosul into Syria. Adding another sectarian dimension, Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul joined the fighting against IS this week – despite protests from the Iraqi government – after an invitation from the Peshmerga. Turkey claimed concern for Mosul’s minority Turkmen population and for the Sunni majority.
Mosul and its surrounding area, although having a majority of Sunnis, is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in Iraq. The last major stronghold of IS in Iraq, its three million population (before IS captured it) included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, with a religious and sectarian diversity that included Sunnis, Shi'as, Salafis, Yezidis and Christians.
Over the past year IS has taken a battering on the battlefield. Its loss of the Syrian town of Dabiq earlier this month was a huge symbolic defeat. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has regained morale and momentum with the recapture of major cities such as Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah over the past ten months. The Mosul offensive involves more than 30 000 forces, mostly made up of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by US air strikes and special forces. IS probably has around 6 000 fighters in the city. The initial advance on Mosul saw more than twenty villages and hamlets liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces within two days, but the offensive then slowed down due to the number of explosives and booby traps on the roads. Earlier this week, around forty kilometres separated the coalition forces from Mosul.
There have already been reports of some local IS fighters abandoning Mosul, leaving foreign fighters behind. Nevertheless, IS is expected to mount stiff resistance from within the city. The fall of this crucial city will affect IS politically as it loses territory, thus jeopardising its state-building project, and also financially since Mosul has been a huge contributor of tax revenue for the group. Coalition forces claim, however, that Mosul will fall within two months. They are hoping that, as IS fighters defend the city against coalition forces, resistance within Mosul will rise up to battle IS from within. This has already begun with an Iraqi flag being raised over an IS government building last week.
Much of the city will likely be in ruins before it is liberated. It is uncertain whether the fragile Iraqi state will be capable of reconstructing this and other devastated areas. It will also have to take over the provision of services and security in areas in which it has not had the responsibility for the past two years, thus increasing its resource burden. Most importantly, the grievances and sense of marginalisation of Sunni communities in the north has not disappeared. The real mark of Iraq’s success in defeating IS will be whether the government is able to address this marginalisation, and include Sunnis in the state in a manner that removes these grievances. If not, then the reasons that IS was able to take Mosul so easily will persist, and the region will remain ripe for others who claim to support the Sunnis in the north against the central government.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.
What is the Islamic State? Expert Omar Shaukat explains all.
The Islamic State militant group Isis - based in Syria and Iraq - claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. It said the attacks were to punish France for its involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and for its attitude to Islam.