Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq last month attracted the attention of regional and international players and angered Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is seeking enough regional and international support to force Turkey to withdraw its troops and cease the bombardment. Although Turkey has occasionally bombed the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, near the Iraq-Iran border, for many years, the latest incursion that started in June, dubbed Operation Claw Tiger, has been unrelenting. Iraqi government protests have not stopped the Turkish incursion. On the other hand, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, seems to be ignoring the incursions, despite occasional statements of protest.
Iran, on 8 August, committed to joining the Turkish bombardment. Attempting to seize the initiative, especially with Iran joining in, on 25 August the USA offered to mediate between Baghdad, Ankara and the KRG. The US offer followed Kadhimi’s complaint to US president Donald Trump about the ongoing airstrikes and his appeal for American assistance. The appeal to Trump followed a Turkish drone strike that killed two high-ranking Iraqi border officials, the first casualties of Iraqi officials since the start of the Turkish campaign in June. Despite Baghdad’s condemnation of the killings, which led to the cancellation of a planned visit of the Turkish foreign minister to Baghdad, Turkey vowed not to back down.
On the same day as the US offer, at a summit between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq about the formation of an economic, diplomatic and security bloc, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stressed the need to deal with foreign interventions destabilising countries in the region, hinting at Turkish activities in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Not to be left out, French president Emmanuel Macron visited Iraq on 2 September, and met Kadhimi and KRG leader Nechirvan Barzani to discuss Iraq’s sovereignty. Unimpressed by Macron’s visit, Turkey hosted Barzani in Ankara two days later. On 8 September, ignoring criticisms, Turkey and Iran vowed to continue the airstrikes against the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), upsetting Baghdad further.
The incursion is not, however, a matter of Turkey against the Kurds, as it is sometimes portrayed. Turkey has strong and enduring relations with the KRG based largely on trade relations and security cooperation. Despite occasional public condemnation, Erbil seems to be broadly supportive of the Turkish incursion and has cooperated with Turkish intelligence, even providing information on PKK positions.
The PKK began an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, attempting to create an independent Kurdish state. Since then, the Turkish military has killed hundreds of PKK members and imprisoned thousands more, including the group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, captured in 1999 in Nairobi while en route to South Africa. A ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, agreed in 2013 as part of a move towards a negotiated settlement, broke down in 2015, and Turkey, USA and the EU listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The group operates mainly from the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq and southern Turkey. Its Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, was formed in 2004 and operates between Iraq and Iran, launching attacks against Iran.
Mass demonstrations broke out in northern Iraq against the KRG’s response to the airstrikes, including in Sinjar where Turkish troops are present. In Baghdad, activists have accused Turkey of murdering civilians. The anti-Turkish demonstrations are likely to continue as the Turkish incursion persists, especially in the Sinjar region where many displaced Yazidis want to return to the homes that they had evacuated or were evicted from during the reign of terror of the Islamic State group in August 2014.
Turkish activities against the PKK in northern Iraq have also highlighted the rivalry between different Iraqi Kurdish groups, exposing historical tensions between them, which have differing views on Turkey and its role in northeastern Syria, where it has been battling Kurdish groups. The KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has close relations with Turkey, and, consequently, the KRG and Turkey have strong trade links that date back to late 2000s, as well as security cooperation and intelligence sharing. These relations were temporarily disrupted when the KRG held a referendum for independence in 2017. The referendum proved to be a miscalculation by the KRG as it was condemned by regional and global powers, including its allies Turkey and the USA, as well as Iran. Then-president of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, stepped down after the referendum, paving the way for his son to succeed him and repair damaged foreign relations.
The KRG was formed as an autonomous entity in 1992 after the UN imposed a no-fly zone in the Kurdish region following Iraq’s defeat by the USA in the first Gulf War. However, rivalry between Kurdish groups prevented a stable government being formed, and it was only in 1998 that the KDP and its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), signed a US-brokered ceasefire agreement. In 2005, the Iraqi constitution granted the region autonomous status. Unlike the PUK, the KDP shares Turkey’s hostility towards the PKK, leading the PUK to accuse its rival of collaborating with Turkey and being responsible for the increased Turkish bombing of the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s eastern Kurdish region. Apart from the PUK, other Iraqi Kurdish groups that are friendly towards the PKK include the Change Movement (Gorran) and the Freedom Movement of Kurdistan Society. Turkey has been agitating with the KRG for these groups to be banned.
These differences among Kurdish groups were again highlighted when, on 21 July, Turkey revealed that it had detained Dalia Muslim, the niece of Saleh Muslim, a prominent leader of the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Ankara claimed she had defected from from the Kurdistan Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s armed wing; she had been a fighter in the YPG’s Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The PYD denied that she had defected, and accused the KRG of having handed her over to Turkish intelligence agents after she had travelled to Erbil for medical treatment.
Allegations of KRG ‘collaboration’ with Turkey are partly based on the close economic relations between the two. The KRG exports oil via Turkish pipelines that connect Kurdish oilfields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Controlling huge oil and natural gas reserves, the KRG often clashes with Baghdad over the distribution of the revenues from the sale of these resources. This dispute escalated in 2014 when Baghdad lodged a complaint against the KRG at the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration (ICA) in Paris. Baghdad is demanding US$25 billion in compensation for allowing the KRG to export oil without the central government’s consent.
The Baghdad-Ankara tension is likely to persist, especially now that Iran is involved. Turkey has found yet another reason for its antagonism to France, which it regards as interfering in its fight against ‘terrorism’. The KRG finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it too wants to curb PKK activities and force it out of areas the KRG controls; on the other hand, it wants to maintain good relations with Baghdad and does not want to be seen to support foreign intervention in Iraq.
Iranian opposition members in Germany have warned of a "massacre" in their home country. They've demanded that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "must go" during a protest outside the foreign ministry in Berlin. This as protests continue in Iran against the Islamic Republic's leadership after it admitted its military shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident, despite days of denials that Iranian forces were to blame. For the latest on the Iran and US tension, we are joined via skype by Executive Director at the Afro-Middle East Centre, Naeem Jeenah.
US President Donald Trump has sought to downplay the significance of Iran's missile attack on two US bases in neighbouring Iraq. Trump tweeted that all was well and that the damage was being assessed. This after Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing US troops in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Despite the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on 30 November 2019, protests in Iraq endure, with protester demands having evolved to include calls for a restructuring of the political system. An indication of how serious the situation is, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has become more vocal, calling, on 20 December, for immediate new elections. The protesters’ call for a revamp of the political system means that there is little possibility, in the immediate future, for the demands of the protesters to be met and for the uprising to end, since the likelihood of finding a compromise candidate who will be acceptable to protesters, and protect the country’s entrenched political actors, is remote. Instability is likely to intensify as the different actors continue jostling to instrumentalise the protest movement, especially in light of the attack on protesters securing the Sinak Bridge in Baghdad earlier this month, which killed over twenty people. What is certain, however, is that Iran’s role in the country, both as influencer and mediator, is increasingly being threatened.
The demonstrations, which consolidated into their current form in early October, were mainly a protest against the country’s endemic corruption and high unemployment rate, especially among graduates. Despite Iraq’s possessing the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, around a quarter of Iraqis live on less than a dollar a day, and youth unemployment stands at between fifteen and seventeen per cent; Transparency International names it the twelfth worst country on its 2018 corruption perception index. These protests are a continuation of the July 2018 protests in Basra and other southern and central provinces, and have been spurred by grievances over corruption and poor public services. However, the movement has expanded in 2019 to include Baghdad.
Significantly, the 2018 and 2019 protests both have been mainly comprised of Iraqi Shi'a, who, despite being the majority in the country, had been marginalised during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but whose influence increased in 2005, during the US occupation. Previous popular protests, especially in 2013 and 2014, had largely comprised of disillusioned Sunnis, and thus were more easily dismissed by the new (Shi'a) political elite. They were also mainly restricted to majority Sunni provinces such as Anbar and Ramadi; the perceived sectarian composition meant that they did not seriously threaten the survival of the regime.
The Abdul Mahdi administration had acknowledged the legitimacy of protesters’ demands, and had resolved to enact electoral reform. However, as with its response in 2018, the government simultaneously attempted to violently quell demonstrations, killing over 400 and injuring around 8000 since October, mostly in Baghdad and in southern provinces such as Nasiriyah. This inflamed tensions further, with many now seeking a full overhaul of the country’s political structure.
The situation has been worsened by attempts to instrumentalise the protests, especially by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main support base is in the south, the epicentre of the protests, and who, in recent weeks, has dispatched armed personnel to protect protesters. Sadr had also previously advocated a general strike. Attempts to find a compromise between the different political blocs were bearing fruit in late October, following meetings between Sadr and the the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) leader Hadi Al-Ameri. However, Iranian mediation stunted the effort. An agreement was concluded by most of the blocs, including Sadr’s, with Tehran’s mediation to protect Abdul Mahdi and to stall the protests, but protester anger rendered this impossible to implement. Protesters have since become more vociferously against Iran’s role in the country, and Iranian consular buildings were attacked in Najaf and Karbala in November.
Iraqi politics is largely dominated by blocs of veteran politicians, many with links to Iran or its clerical establishment. A 2005 Constitution divides power among Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds. The 2018 parliamentary election saw no political bloc gain a majority. Sadr’s influence was, however, enhanced; his party received the highest number of seats but had to rule in coalition with the Hashd al-Shaabi, in a deal brokered by Iran. The established blocs, including Sadr’s, benefit from the current political configuration, hence. That is why, though Sadr and Ameri first agreed on the need for Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, they later closed ranks behind him following the Iranian mediation.
Protester demands were given a boost in November after receiving direct support from the country’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose criticisms of the government’s will to implement reforms was the main factor influencing Abdul Mahdi’s eventual resignation. Sistani has also been increasingly critical of Iran’s role in Iraq, and he has asserted that the formation of an Iraqi government had to be accomplished between Iraqis without outside meddling. Sistani’s support has provided further legitimacy for the protests, widening their appeal and dividing the Hashd, many of whom now support the protests, after Sistani’s criticisms of the government, while other Hashd groups take their cue from Iran. Sistani does not usually comment on party political matters, and is revered by most political actors in the country. His occasional political calls usually get implemented, such as his call for early elections in 2003, for the removal of Nuri al-Maliki in 2014, and for the taking up of arms against the Islamic State group, which resulted in the formation of the Hashd, were all largely implemented.
Tensions are boiling over, with suspicion intensifying in the protest camps. This has not been helped by the current stalemate between the government and protesters and is engendering a power vacuum, which can easily be exploited by different actors. Two attacks on 7 December on protesters camped on the Sinak bridge in Baghdad (which killed over twenty), and on Sadr’s home in Najaf, add to the potential for protests to become militarised, especially since Sadr’s supporters possess arms and the Iraqi military is in flux, after Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. Some have accused Sadr of being involved in the attack, but this is unlikely, since his supporters were helping secure the bridge and the drone attack was aimed at him. It is thus more likely that the attacks, especially on Sadr’s residence, were instigated by one of the Hashd groups opposed to the protests.
Following Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, the country has until 16 December to nominate a new candidate for prime minister, but the events of the past few weeks have impeded the impetus and abilities for the different actors to find a consensus, even though this failure will likely weaken their positions. No names have been put forward to replace Abdul Mahdi, with Sadr’s bloc, Sairoon, insisting that a new prime minister be chosen by the anti-government protesters, and that no previous minister or anyone that might be rejected by the protesters is a suitable candidate. Protesters have already been circulating their own lists for who should succeed Abdul Mahdi. Sistani, meanwhile, issued his own statement on 20 December, calling for immediate elections. The prime minister’s resignation has left a power vacuum and limited accountability, especially since the Abdul Mahdi government can only act in a ‘caretaker’ role for the next thirty days, curtailing both its powers and longevity to see any process through.
Sistani supports the UN Assistance mission in Iraq’s (UNAMI) November road map, which calls for constitutional change, electoral reform, the release of protesters, job creation and investigations into the deaths of protesters. It is probably the only means of exiting the current impasse. However, its implementation will weaken the powers of the entrenched political blocs, and the likelihood oof its success is therefore limited. Iran’s failure to mediate, like it did in 2018 with Abdul Mahdi’s appointment, might suggest its diminishing influence in Iraq; Sistani’s vailed criticisms of Iran could further weaken Tehran’s position, which remains strong.
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.