The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has recently made a statement condemning attacks by Kurdish militants within Iran. The Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), as this group is known, is an organization tied to the better known fighters operating for Kurdish independence in Turkey, the PKK.
The KRG has increasingly been careful to distance itself from its former allies the PKK and PJAK. Past cooperation included Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian Kurds supporting each other’s fights for security, autonomy, or independence in each country. Now that the Kurds of Iraq have a formal, internationally recognized regional government within Iraq, they are treading more carefully in order not to antagonize their large neighbours: Turkey and Iran. Of course, there are strong ties of kin and culture between the Kurds in all three countries.
Furthermore, the KRG doesn’t have the capacity to face resistance on multiple fronts. Its future is still uncertain, and every month is a new chapter in the ongoing history of this fragile regional government. The KRG has its hands full in an increasingly heated political battle with the Iraqi central government, as well as Arab tribal and municipal leaders in the north of the country.
Significant and economically vital portions of northern Iraq are contested by the KRG and the central Iraqi government both. This competition is not simply determining the future of Iraq’s provincial boundaries, but is also influencing the outcome of the very nature of the federal state.
The fulcrum appears to be the distribution of power between a centralized versus decentralized federation. The direction of movement on this question will help determine the degree of independence in the hands of the KRG. The topography on which these parties are currently battling are in the contested territories: most notably at oil rich Kirkuk, and also at the large city of Mosul.
Al Jazeera news clip on tensions in Mosul:
Russia using Iran as a bargaining chip, Iran’s fight against Kurdish militants, and looming elections
First published at Rabble.ca:
A senior Russian official has, on Wednesday, confirmed that country’s agreement to sell air defence missiles to Iran. Russian news sources have also indicated that the transfer of this military technology has not yet taken place, and appears to be delayed for political reasons. The official reason given by a Russian defence expert was that “fulfillment of the contract will mainly depend on the current international situation and the decision of the country’s leadership.”
The S-300 missiles, if transferred to Iran, could be used to defend Iran against air strikes. Western military experts claim that these weapons could help provide some security to nuclear sites within Iran in the case of an air assault by either. It appears that Russian interest in this deal, worth hundred of millions of dollars, is mainly political and not financial. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. president Barack Obama are to meet next month, and this particular deal could be used as a “bargaining chip” and leverage in negotiations between the two leaders.
Iraqi Kurdish media, PUK, reports that the leader of Zharawa county in Iraq claims that Iranian artillery has stuck the mountains of Razqa and Maradu villages in Zahrawa on March 18. The shelling is cited to have lasted half an hour and resulted in no casualties.
For several years now, Iran has conducted such artillery shelling against mountains and villages near its border. These attacks have at times been coordinated with Turkey, especially during the height of tensions between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government in 2007. Turkey is fighting against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that has carried out armed attacks against the Turkish military and civilians in a campaign for independence of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south eastern regions. Iran engaged in a similar conflict with a PKK splinter group in its territory, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK). Most of the PKK and PJAK’s leadership seems to be taking refuge in the mountains of Iraq, along with armed fighters that stage operations from these bases and training grounds. I recommend reading James Brandon’s 2007 report on PKK and PJAK bases in Iraq’s Mount Qandil for further background.
Within Iran’s parliament (majles), a key component of president Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s most recent budget was defeated by the opposition, and an updated budget passed. The political opposition feared that some aspects of president Ahmadinejad’s proposed oil policy would result in hyperinflation, rocking an already fragile economy.
Furthermore, the political disagreement has come to a head as the 12 June date for presidential elections approaches. President Ahmadinejad’s approach to the budget only heightened tensions. He brought the budget before the majles only shortly before the Iranian new year celebration and demanded quick resolution by the end of this week in order that the government’s expenditures not be frozen in the new year. Without an approved budget for the new year, Iran’s government cannot technically spend money without emergency measures. This timing seems to have been designed to blackmail the opposition to accept the bill despite disagreement, for fear of being blamed for a budget crisis months before an election. The tactic, however, did not wholly work, and the opposition came together to at least partially rewrite the bill.
Tension increases between the Kurds and al-Maliki’s government in Iraq. President Talabani, a Kurd, and Prime Minister al-Maliki continue to battle over the Prime Minister’s plan to create ‘tribal councils’ loyal to his government.
The Kurds feel these councils will turn into illegal armed groups outside of the purview of the national army. The Kurds fear that these councils will be used to undermine their authority in northern Iraq, and will constitute a new armed faction at a time of increasing disagreement between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government.
The Kurds have expanded their influence and zone of control beyond the recognized borders of their territory and conflict is most noticeable in the cities of Kirkuk, and Mosul.
The Kurds rely on their own militias, the peshmerga, to retain control of their regions. Many of the peshmerga have been integrated into the national army though they tend to remain in homogeneous units.
The New York Times covers more on this story and reports that:
President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, said at a news conference on Monday that on behalf of the Executive Council — made up of him and the two vice presidents — he would be sending the question to the Federal Supreme Court for a ruling on the constitutionality of the councils.
First, some background.
Tensions in northern Iraq are on the rise and there’s risk of violent confrontation between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has been trading sharp words with the Kurdish Regional Government and an incident in the late Summer almost drew to violence between the Kurdish fighters, the ‘peshmerga’, and the Iraqi Army.
Briefly, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has wanted greater autonomy from the central Iraqi government, possibly leading to factual even if no formal independence. The central government has wanted to pull the region into deeper integration with the country as a whole, limiting at least some of its independence.
The KRG has maintained its formally recognized borders constituting approximately the old no-fly zone over northern Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein. However it has informally expanded by taking key political offices in neighbouring regions or cities such as Mosul and Kirkuk. The KRG wishes to integrate at least Kirkuk, an oil rich region, into its formal borders. The central government has resisted this and has not met a constitutionally mandated date for a local referendum on this issue, while the KRG pushes harder on the issue and stuffs Kirkuk with its fighters. This situation has incensed emotions and very much frayed relations.
The KRG has shown further evidence of its preparation for potential violent confrontation by recently purchasing a significant shipment of small arms and ammunition from Bulgaria. They did this without informing the central government and claim that they have constitutional freedom to pursue armament as a regional government.
The government of Prime Minister al-Maliki has at the same time been bringing on side tribal leaders to form what some are calling a new militia by the name of the Support Councils. Such new tribal alliances can serve as a fighting force, especially in Mosul where the majority are Arabs and only a quarter of the population is Kurdish.
The KRG has seen little violence since the ousting of Saddam Hussein and has been relatively stable. The most probably source of violent conflict for the region is if tension between the central government and the KRG triggers actual fighting between them. It seems the KRG is preparing for this possibility, and is also using its armed and veteran fighters, the ‘peshmerga’, as a bargaining chip in current and future negotiations with the rest of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran are eyeing the situation in the KRG with concern, worried that their homegrown Kurdish independence movements, mainly based out of Northern Iraq, will also explode into open conflict.
While the US military presence persists in the country, and the US has an explicit mandate to maintain Iraq’s internal security, it seems the two opposing blocs are in the process of consolidating their holdings, though there is certainly still the risk of full blown violence.
It seems likely that the US will mostly depart Iraq in the near future. The current security agreement between the two countries, yet to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament and already signed off by Prime Minister al-Maliki and his cabinet, states a withdrawal date of 1 January, 2011. Also, the agreement seems to state that the explicit US mandate of defending Iraq’s internal security will expire on 1 January, 2012.
If open and formal violence was to erupt between the central government and the KRG, it’s most likely to happen when there is least possibility of intervention from the US though things may still get out of hand if the Kurds decide to expand their holdings when they believe they can still depend on some immediate US protection.
For the sake of this scenario, I’m going to assume that the KRG makes a move to expand its power and possibly territory, mainly gaining effective independence from Iraq after US withdrawal from the country. In this case, the chances of spiraling violence are high. What would happen then?
IRAQ TORN APART, CIVIL WAR
Most likely Sunni and Shia Arabs will unify against the Kurds (it will be very bad for them if they don’t). The central government of Iraq will activate existing and newly developed militias, including the powerful SIIC militia and possible tribal Support Councils, as well as the army.
Iran and Turkey will probably close their borders to the KRG as will Iraq, cutting off almost all land supplies that feed the Kurdish economy, and people. Turkey and Iran will press for Syria to close its borders and will also ask it to ban all civilian flights through its airspace into the KRG. The KRG, landlocked and fully blockaded via land and air will find itself in a tough spot.
Iran will probably quietly fortify its position in Iranian Kurdistan, west of the country and bordering Iraq. It will however not cross over into Iraq. Iran will want to keep smuggling across the border to a minimum and stop the flow of goods and fighters. It may even plant new mines on the border. The border is already heavily mined, these a source of great tragedy for Iranian Kurds who today smuggle many goods into the KRG.
Iran will let Turkey take the lead so that it’s not threatened by Western powers for acts of aggression. Turkey will coordinate with Iran and Iraq, sharing intelligence and consolidating a collective strategy.
The US will be in a thorny situation since any attempts to help the Kurds will mean opposing its NATO ally.
The Kurds will probably be blockaded then shelled by Turkey, and the Qandil mountain installations of Kurdish fighters will be shelled by Iran. Turkish air raids could become common as well as Turkish special forces maneuvers, possibly as joint ventures with the central Iraqi government. The Kurds will definitely lose Mosul since they constitute a minority of the population and the Arabs there are well organized. They’ll also probably lose Kirkuk and will be pushed back to the previous KRG zone of influence that corresponds with the old no-fly zone.
The US may work feverishly and succeed in preventing Turkey and Iraq from pushing further than the no-fly zone, which these attacking parties may well agree to and step back from taking any more territory. Turkey and Iraq, I believe, will mainly accept this because they won’t be able to hold this land. It will likely be pyrrhic to fight armed and veteran peshmerga in their mountain homes. Historically, trying to hold mountainous Kurdish territory against fighters has almost always led to failure. Also, Afghanistan and Iraq itself are valuable lessons in the difficulty of holding on to a land in the face of partisan resistance even if you have a technically superior military force.
If Turkey feels it has a green light from the international community then it can conduct full and very brutal air strikes and provide unmitigated support of a possible Iraqi push while coordinating its ground units with the central government’s units, and at first denying the joint ground assault.
The central government of Iraq will be faced with a difficult decision in Kirkuk. It may want to assault the oil fields before the city itself so that the peshmerga doesn’t have time to damage or destroy them. The pipelines may be blasted at points but that’s easier to repair. The Kurds are intelligent fighters and will have fortified their positions around the oil fields so this will be a difficult objective for the Iraqi government to attain.
The central government will need to consider how the outside world (really mainly the West) will perceive them making a surprise or broadcast attack to secure the oil fields. Both sides will seek to cut off the opposition’s supply lines to Kirkuk. The Kurds have stuffed that city with their fighters though and it can turn into some very bloody fighting there. The Kurds may decide to raze parts of the city if they think it inevitable that they will lose then fight from the rubble before trying to flee or retreat if at all possible. The fight for Kirkuk could turn into something awful, considering the emotions attached to it as well as the wealth that comes from it. It would be a great actual and symbolic victory for either side.
In the medium to long term, those attacking the KRG will likely rely on a blockade and ‘sanctions’ to weaken the core of the very well-defended Kurdish region. In this regard, we may see a concerted regional effort to break the KRG. Since the anti-Kurdish coalition will probably feel it’s not acceptable for them to outright exterminate or push out the Kurds with weapons they’ll resort to ‘sanctions’ and blockades, essentially starving people and the economy in order to at least contain the Kurds and weaken or break their military capacity.
Terrorist activity will likely be common by both the central Iraqi government and the KRG, with both denying involvement and stating that independent organizations are to blame, and that they have no control of what they will call partisans or freedom fighters. The terrorist activity will be used to create havoc behind the front lines, prevent a concentration of enemy military force by forcing them to partially break off units for police action, to disrupt supply lines, to bring economies to their knees, and to terrorize civilians into fleeing a region in order to change facts on the ground.
The Kurds will be in a losing position unless they have outside assistance. The US will be pressed to intervene at least politically.
This is the worst case scenario as I see it. Certainly to be avoided, and should be in the back of the central government and the KRG’s minds when making decisions that could spark violence.
Iraq’s central government, under Prime Minister Maliki has increasingly been exerting its influence. Recently, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central government have come close to open conflict over the question of KRG autonomy. The KRG’s private army, the peshmerga, has been asked to release control of government buildings in a contested area: Khanaqin. The Kurds claim that Khanaqin should fall within Iraqi Kurdistan. The KRG has refused to comply with the central government’s demand for the drawing down of peshmerga from the region, and the Iraqi National Army has been sent in to show just how serious Maliki is on the issue.
It remains to be seen what political or military solution comes out of this.
Al Jazeera has fairly good analysis of the situation on YouTube, with interviews of a spokesman from the KRG, as well as an Arab and US analysts.
Inside Iraq: Part 1
Inside Iraq: Part 2
Christopher Lyndon interviews Patrick Cockburn on Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr.
The New War in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn: “The US forces in Iraq are beginning a new war against a new enemy in Iraq. For five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the US was confronting (fighting) the Sunni Arab community — about 20 percent of Iraqis, or 5 to 6 million people. Now in the last few months it’s confronting a large part of the Shia community — those that are loyal to Muqtada Al-Sadr, his Sadrist movement and the Mahdi Army, which really represent the Shia poor. But, you know, one Iraqi official who’s not sympathetic to Muqtada was saying to me the other day that the Shia are a majority of Iraqis and Muqtada’s followers are a majority of the Shia. So this is probably 30 to 40 percent of the whole population. This is a massive new confrontation that the US is undertaking in Iraq.” (Patrick Cockburn interview, Open Source)
Building Capacity in Iraq. The transition of security to Iraqi control and responsibility involves much more than merely building units and transferring equipment; the process includes building ministerial capacity for generation and replenishment of capability. The common point of view is that for the transition of control there must be a balance of meeting security requirements and transition activities, each as separate activities. The reality is that in Iraq there must be security while transitioning, and the two activities of security and transition are simultaneous and complementary. (Dr. Jack D. Kem, Small Wars Journal)
Who is Making Tehran’s Iraq Policy? I understand that it is now in vogue to talk about the IRGC in general and the Qods Force as the THE power in Iran (with consequential impact throughout the Middle East). I have not found this argument to be very convincing. My take continues to be that the military in Iran has traditionally been and continues to be under civilian control, even if the Guards hierarchy as well as its individual members have and do play an important role in Iranian politics. (Farideh Farhi, Informed Comments: Global Affairs)
Iraqi Kurds and Their Future. Erstwhile kings of the mountains, Iraq’s Kurdish parties have become kingmakers in Baghdad. No federal government can be established without them—and they know it.
This new role suits the Kurdish parties just fine, as it allows them to advance their agenda: to use a once wide but now narrowing window of opportunity to expand the territory and natural resources (oil, gas and water) under their control, as well as the powers they exercise within that territory. They hope thereby to build the foundations of an independent Kurdish state, an ambition that once and for all would allow them to trade in their barren mountain hideouts for a stable home in the fertile plains. How did the Kurds accomplish this remarkable makeover from hardened maquisards to polished politicians and administrators? What are its implications today for Iraq as well as the Kurdistan region? And what challenges lie ahead? (Joost Hilterman, International Crisis Group)
Turkey’s Wise Hesitation. It is not merely statesmanlike restraint or responsiveness to U.S., European and Arab appeals that have so far prevented Turkey from launching a military invasion of northern Iraq. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his military commanders are also acutely aware that such an operation would play into the hands of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, the insurgent group that is dug into the rugged, mountainous terrain along the Turkish-Iraqi border. Twelve Turkish soldiers were killed and eight others captured in a PKK ambush inside Turkey on Sunday; if there were an invasion, Ankara’s losses would be much higher, while the chances that PKK bases inside Iraq could be wiped out are small. Meanwhile, Turkey’s gains in integrating its ethnic Kurd population — a large part of which voted for Mr. Erdogan’s party in recent elections — could be nullified. What Turkey really wants is to pressure the United States and Iraq into taking action against the PKK. (Washington Post)
Turkey approaches its ‘finest hour’. With tension rising on the Turkish-Iraqi border over the weekend – Kurdish rebels killed 17 Turkish troops on Sunday – the region could be plunged into war in a matter of days. “Black Sunday” seems to show that key players – Talabani, Barazani and Zebari – and US president George W Bush – are simply not telling the truth. The Kurdish leaders insist, and so does the United States, that the PKK operates from northern Iraq on its own, with no mandate from either Kurdish decision-makers, the Iraqi government or the Bush White House. Speaking at a press conference with Barazani on Sunday, Talabani seemed to contradict himself, confirming his ties to the PKK by saying that all Turkish requests to arrest or extradite its leaders were “a dream that will never be fulfilled”. (Sami Moubayed, Asia Times)
US taking steps to avoid friendly fire in N. Iraq. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica has requested three days from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to allow the withdrawal of US troops from northern Iraq to prevent a possible confrontation of Turkish and US troops in the event Turkey starts an incursion into northern Iraq to strike against bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization, a Turkish official said. (Today’s Zaman)
Talabani refuses to deliver PKK leaders to Turkey amid protests against incursion. “The handing over of PKK leaders to Turkey is a dream that will never be realized,” [Iraq’s President] Talabani, a Kurd, told a news conference in the northern province of Arbil, where he held an urgent meeting with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to discuss rising tension between Iraq and Turkey after the PKK killed 12 Turkish soldiers in an ambush in the early morning on Sunday near the Iraqi border. (Today’s Zaman)
Tactical and Strategic Factors in Turkey’s Offensive Against the PKK within Turkey. A Turkish military offensive in the ethnic-Kurdish provinces of southeastern Turkey began in mid-September. Turkey’s autumn campaigns against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) usually do not begin until October, but the current campaign is designed to reinforce Turkey’s position in negotiations with Iraq over the elimination of PKK bases in northern Iraq. The offensive also delivers a message to Turkey’s U.S. ally, which has been reluctant to move against PKK bases in Iraq. According to Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug, “the U.S. should understand and see that it is not time for words, but for action” (Today’s Zaman, September 25). Turkey’s armed forces, the Turk Silahli Kuvvetleri (TSK), have until the end of October (when winter weather sets in on the mountainous border region) to destroy or capture the 1,500-1,900 PKK militants believed to be in Turkey. (The Jamestown Foundation)
Turkey’s row with U.S. over Iraq may hit lira hard. The high-yielding lira has fallen 3.3 percent this week against the dollar from six-year highs due to the Iraq issue, but economists say it could drop much more if Turkey defies Washington and sends its forces across the border. (Reuters)