Arab-Kurdish war drums roar in northern Iraq

Arab-Kurdish war drums roar in northern Iraq

One of the Middle East’s longest running conflicts is on the verge of a dangerous escalation. While many perceive the Palestinians as the epitome of a people without a state, the Kurds remain the world’s largest ethnic group devoid of a state of their own. Few nations in the region, aside from Israel, have an interest in seeing an independent Kurdish state. This historic reality has led to a series of confrontations between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Consequently, Arab Iraq’s recent attempts to boost its military presence in disputed areas have sounded the drums of war. With Kurdish and Iraqi forces now in a standoff and engaged in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, any incident could set-off another round of Arab-Kurdish wars in Iraq.

Iraq’s newly created Tigris Dijla Operations Command (TOC) and the Kurds’ opposition to it represents the tensions surrounding sectarian supremacy in northern Iraq. The region remains divided between communities of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Yazidis. All lay claim to this oil-rich region. Since the 1960s, an increasing number of Arab settlers have moved into areas once dominated by Kurds and Turkmen, largely through policies of “Arabization” sponsored by Iraq’s former Baath pan-Arabist party. Despite the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s new Arab/Shiite-dominated government has refused to relinquish the disputed areas around Diyala, Kirkuk and Mosul, irrespective of increasing autonomous gains in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG).

Following years of periodic confrontations between military forces and negotiations over the fate of disputed territory, Iraq’s formation of the TOC has only fomented greater mistrust between Arbil and Baghdad. Kurdish security forces have historically maintained an agreement with Iraqi forces in disputed areas that saw mainly Kurdish police taking responsibility for internal security operations. The addition of Salah al-Din province into the TOC will possibly see the integration of the Iraqi 4th Division into the aforementioned command, which already consists of the 12th Infantry Division and the 5th Mechanized Division. Baghdad says it is also planning to create two divisions for deployment in the region. Strategically, Iraq is likely seeking to expand its influence in the north, thereby thwarting further Kurdish gains, while testing Kurdish resolve to hold on to disputed and strategic areas. This is underscored by recent statements where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the Iraqi army is determined to control every inch of the country.

But Kirkuk is a city of major historical and cultural significance to Kurds, whereas it isn’t for the Arabs. The Kurds are reluctant to relinquish this city and other lands perceived as part of the future Kurdish state. The Kurds have issued multiple warnings to Baghdad to refrain from its current policy, while indicating they are willing to go to war to preserve their interests.

Al-Maliki has ignored those warnings. On Nov. 1, Maliki ordered the incorporation of Salah al-Din province into the already controversial TOC. As part of this security overhaul, two military divisions are set to deploy to the disputed Kirkuk and Diyala areas. The move angered Iraq’s Kurds. On Nov. 16, a firefight broke out between Kurdish bodyguards and an Iraqi police contingent of the TOC in Tuz Khurmato, south of Kirkuk. The fighting erupted after Iraqi soldiers attempted to search a house belonging to a Kurdish politician in the ethnically mixed and disputed town. Two people were killed after Kurdish forces fired upon the Iraqi troops. Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) placed its Peshmerga, the name for the Kurdish military, on high alert. Despite al-Maliki’s warning to Kurdish fighters to remain put thousands of Kurdish fighters are continuing to deploy to the disputed cities of Kirkuk and Khanaqin, accompanied by heavy artillery.

The situation has escalated since. In response, dozens of Iraqi armored units and numerous troops left Baghdad and headed towards the Tuz District, before taking up positions in the Hamrin Mountains near Kirkuk. A Kurdish Peshmerga commander warned that his troops might attack Iraqi troops in response. Now effectively in a standoff, officials are warning that any shots by either side could escalate the situation severely.

Devoid of a broad-based agreement regarding disputed territory, which looks unlikely in the near future, the situation in Iraq’s north is on the brink of war. Both sides are hesitant to appear weak at this time, thus relying on a strategy of brinkmanship as they deploy their forces and warn the other side not to test their resolve. As was indicated previously, any shots or miscalculations carry the potential to unleash a new round of fighting. The situation is only aggravated by thousands of troops who continue to deploy around Kirkuk.

It is possible that KRG President Massoud Barzani is acting with greater resolve to confront Baghdad at this time given volatile security conditions throughout the region, in addition to a possible strategically calculated decision to act with resolve before Iraq is outfitted with American-made warplanes in the coming years. It could be argued that Iraq’s preoccupation with an ongoing Sunni insurgency coupled with Baghdad’s limited military capabilities at this time, favor a more aggressive Kurdish approach at this time.

Elements among both sides are likely seeking to de-escalate the situation. Should the situation escalate, however, the region’s stability could suffer as many parties have a strategic interest in developments in northern Iraq. The coming days will likely be crucial to indicate the level of brinkmanship both sides are willing to endure. A temporary agreement is unlikely to prevent further confrontations over the long term. As has been the case before, extensive behind the scenes diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation by the Obama administration are likely ongoing. But with thousands of troops leveling their guns at one another across a dangerous fault line, it remains to be seen who will blink first.

Daniel Brode is a senior intelligence analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and North African security affairs at Max Security Solutions; a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel.