Maintaining the tenuous peace in the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk will require a nuanced approach as part of a wider strategy to counter Daesh.
Mounting Daesh attacks against Peshmerga forces over recent weeks in the “disputed areas” between the central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq (KRI), have once again brought up the controversial issue of the Peshmerga’s return to the contested city of Kirkuk.
Iraqi Kurds hold that Daesh is taking advantage of the security gap in the “disputed areas” and that cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil would help prevent the attacks. Iraqi and KRI forces are currently organising anti-Daesh operations together to deter security threats in the “disputed areas”.
Yet some of Kirkuk’s Turkmen and Arab constituents and politicians believe the ongoing military cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil will pave the way for the Peshmerga’s return to the city, an idea that they strictly oppose on the grounds of the possibility of it altering the delicate balances in the city.
City of conflicts
Kirkuk, perhaps Iraq’s most ethnically diverse city, is a home to mainly Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens. The oil-rich city is one of the “disputed areas” between Baghdad and Erbil, according to the Article 140 of Iraq's 2005 constitution.
The city’s communities are not entirely united; on the contrary, each group is divided by political preferences and sect. For example, the Kurds are generally divided between KDP and PUK, and Turkmens, between Sunnis and Shias. The city is a kind of “miniature Iraq” with its multi ethnic-religious society. Thus, any crisis in Iraq directly impacts the city.
The city has historically been ridden by conflicts driven by each community’s unique discourse and reading of historical events. The Arabs in Kirkuk claim that their lands have been confiscated by the Kurds since 2003, when the Baath regime fell. Notwithstanding that the Kurds allege that they are the real owners of these lands, that they were exposed to forced displacement during Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation policy. According to the KRI authorities, this policy was resumed after 2017.
On the other hand, Turkmens argue that the demographic structure of the city was subjected to Arabisation under the Baathist regime, and later to Kurdification between 2003 and 2017.
In addition to the existing conflicts, the city was once again shaken when the KRI held an independence referendum on September 25, 2017, including in the “disputed areas” that the central Iraqi government regarded as illegal.
The referendum brought Baghdad and Erbil to the brink of war. Following that, the Iraqi army and the Hashd al Shaabi — a paramilitary force dominated by Iran-backed Shia militias — re-took the city a few weeks later on October 16.
As a result, Iraqi Kurds lost control of Kirkuk where they had enjoyed political and economic privileges since 2014, following the Iraqi army’s withdrawal in the face of Daesh’s advance.
Although Iraqi leadership declared victory against Daesh in 2017, the group still regularly attacks Iraqi forces, and more recently, the Peshmerga as well. Iraqi and KRI forces agreed to form joint coordination rooms in “disputed areas” last year. Two joint brigades, consisting of Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces, were formed and are reportedly under training to be deployed to the same regions.
Speaking about the two joint brigades, Jabar Yawar, the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Peshmerga, said that the Iraqi and KRI forces will only fill the gaps outside the cities, adding that Peshmerga forces will be a part of Iraqi forces. Yawar also underlined that the “Peshmerga forces do not intend to enter Kirkuk”.
However, the joint brigade topic has caused doubts among some residents and politicians in Kirkuk, who fear that it might lead to the Peshmerga’s return to the city. A group of Turkmen and Arabs from Kirkuk rejected the joint brigade, criticising it as a “suspicious” step and calling for further transparency about the process.
Hasan Turan, the President of Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), argued that the joint forces between Iraqi army and Peshmerga would not eliminate terrorism, pointing to the Iraqi forces as a sole solution. ITF Kirkuk Parliamentarian Arshad Salihi also further elaborated that Peshmerga forces settled in positions around Kirkuk city, adding that Turkmen and Arabs oppose that.
Their objection suggests that they believe the Peshmerga’s return to the city would pave the way for the restoration of Kurdish control of the city and have an advantageous position in many ongoing issues such as the election of governor.
But the question of Peshmerga in Kirkuk is one that goes beyond domestic Iraqi politics to matters of regional security. Over the last month, the question of whether the Peshmerga would return to Kirkuk has become a polemic issue in Turkiye due to the historical ties between Turkiye and Iraqi Turkmens.
It is not a secret that Kirkuk’s status is of particular concern to regional countries such as Iran and Turkiye, as seen in their opposition to KRI’s referendum in 2017. Therefore, both actors would oppose any attempt of the Peshmerga to return to the city. Besides, considering the hostile relations between KRI and Hashd al Shaabi, the group would also stand against that idea.
However, bearing in mind that the Iraqi Kurds won half of the seats in Kirkuk and obtained a bargaining chip with the general results in the October 10 Iraqi elections, Iran and the Hashd al Shaabi might negotiate Peshmerga’s partial return, in exchange for political support to get their PM elected.
The security gaps and Daesh attacks in the “disputed areas” requires both Baghdad and Erbil to cooperate militarily. Considering the long-held conflicts and distrust in Kirkuk, however, Iraqi officials should provide clear information and an inclusive atmosphere to discuss the security strategy, with international observers involved. Otherwise, a fait accompli policy in the already volatile city can easily spiral into a regional crisis.
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