The Middle East Channel

Iraqi protests and the need for a political strategy on Kirkuk

Somewhat lost in the wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East, which are now washing up on Iraq’s shores, has been the recent deployment of two brigades of Kurdish peshmerga troops in the disputed province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. There has been a peshmerga presence in Kirkuk since 2003, but stationed north of ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

Somewhat lost in the wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East, which are now washing up on Iraq’s shores, has been the recent deployment of two brigades of Kurdish peshmerga troops in the disputed province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. There has been a peshmerga presence in Kirkuk since 2003, but stationed north of the provincial capital of Kirkuk city. However, following Iraq’s own "Day of Rage" on Feb. 25, peshmerga forces moved to take up positions along a line south of the city. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials have stated that the deployment is needed to protect Kurdish populations in the disputed areas from the threat posed by what they claim are terrorist-infiltrated demonstrations. The Iraqi government’s response to the move has so far been muted, but local Arab leaders in Kirkuk and some of their Turkoman counterparts are expressing alarm that the move will fuel intercommunal tension and requesting intervention by the national government. Underscoring the potential seriousness of the situation, on Sunday, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and U.S. Forces Commanding General Lloyd Austin met with KRG President Massoud Barzani to discuss security arrangements in Kirkuk.

The status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in northern Iraq is perhaps the major unresolved potential political driver of conflict in Iraq as American troops prepare to withdraw later this year, and at various points since 2008 the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga have come close to an armed confrontation. The current situation in Kirkuk is likely to be defused without further escalation, but it raises important questions about the consolidation of U.S.-backed conflict-prevention mechanisms aimed at forestalling the use of military units to resolve territorial disputes as well as the lack of a viable Iraqi political process to begin to resolve the core elements underlying the territorial conflict. Without any political road map or vision existing for addressing the fate of the disputed territories, there is the risk that parties are tempted to take matters into their own hands and that moments of social unrest, such as the current demonstrations around poor services and unemployment, quickly degenerate into ethnic tension.

Previous brushes between federal government and Kurdish forces in the disputed territories led then-U.S. Commanding General Raymond Odierno to midwife the birth of a combined security mechanism (CSM) between the Iraqi Army, the peshmerga, and U.S. military in 2009. The central purpose of the mechanism is to use greater integration and coordination between federal government and Kurdish security forces to prevent destabilizing surprises like the unannounced 2008 deployment by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of an Iraqi Army division and tanks to disputed areas of Diyala province, which led to a rolling series of standoffs between the Iraqi Army and peshmerga. However, despite the subsequent establishment of this conflict-prevention mechanism, and while KRG officials state that the peshmerga deployment in Kirkuk was authorized by Iraqi authorities and the U.S. military, Maliki has reportedly denied this and demanded that the peshmerga brigades leave Kirkuk. U.S. officials privately indicate that the Kirkuk deployment occurred outside of any coordination through the CSM, and according to senior peshmerga officials, the United States has also been pushing the KRG to withdraw the two brigades. The KRG is so far refusing to do so until the situation is "stable."

Kirkuk of course has a tortured history of ethnic conflict, and there is a past record of Arab tribal groupings burning Kurdish homes and property in the province during times of instability. Some local municipal buildings were indeed burned in some Kirkuk towns during the Day of Rage protest, and the KRG alleges that demonstrators raised pictures of Saddam Hussein, rejected the possibility of Kirkuk’s attachment to the Kurdistan region, and planned to march on Kirkuk city. While Kurdish concerns are somewhat understandable given Kirkuk’s history, the scale of the KRG response, which is reported to include some 12,000 troops and small and medium artillery, appears out of proportion to any potential threat from follow-on demonstrations (which have so far been prevented through curfews and the work of Iraqi Army and police already in place). This suggests additional factors may be at play. The KRG could be seeking a "rally around the flag" effect to detract attention from serious protests inside the Kurdistan region. More strategically, the KRG may also be testing the possibility of moving the de facto frontier of the Kurdistan region below Kirkuk city while the safety net of a U.S. military presence in Kirkuk is still in place. If this is in fact the case, there is of course the inherent risk of a miscalculation during an apparently unilateral maneuver leading to serious violence.

These developments hold important lessons for the U.S. government. The first is that while conflict prevention and management mechanisms are important, they are not a long-term substitute for a political process to address this dispute. In the absence of such a framework, the parties will be tempted to establish new facts on the ground as their strategic positions evolve or opportunities present themselves. The 2008 deployment of the Iraqi Army to Diyala came after a surge in Maliki’s political standing following a successful campaign against Sadrist militias in Basra and when record oil prices were swelling the Iraqi government’s coffers. Likewise, the peshmerga’s move in Kirkuk occurs at a moment when Maliki is fully occupied with the challenge of responding to growing protests around the country and renewed talk of an alliance between his two greatest political rivals. The second lesson is that American actions are intertwined with the strategic playing field and Iraqi actors’ decisions. Rather than wait for the uncertainties of the post-U.S. withdrawal environment, the KRG might be seeking to affect new realities on the ground in the exact spot of the disputed areas most important to Kurds while calculating that the current American boots on the ground rule out the worst-case scenario of a forceful response by the Iraqi Army.

According to a former official with the State Department-led provincial reconstruction team in Kirkuk, the U.S. government has disbursed $1 billion in assistance in Kirkuk over the last eight years. Following the scheduled departure of American forces from Iraq in December 2011, the United States plans to maintain temporary embassy branch offices in Kirkuk and Nineveh for three to five years to help manage Arab-Kurdish tensions in these two provinces. These offices are estimated to cost $350 million each to set up, and it’s probably safe to assume they will have eight- or even nine-figure annual operating costs. As is the case with the current situation in Kirkuk, an American diplomatic presence on the ground will be invaluable in terms of managing and preventing conflict escalation. However, if the United States is going to invest another billion dollars in conflict prevention, a larger political strategy is also required to increase U.S. confidence that there will be some movement toward conflict resolution during the lifetime of the temporary branch offices.

In the immediate term, the U.S. government should be delivering a firm message to all stakeholders that territorial disputes cannot be resolved through unilateral measures and that such steps could lead to the review of U.S. military assistance and training to the initiating party. Next, U.S. diplomats should be making the case that a genuine Iraqi negotiating process needs to be started on the future of the disputed territories so that this issue can be contested through political rather than military maneuvering. Such a process could be presented to the national government as lessening the possibility of territorial gains by the peshmerga in Kirkuk while political fragmentation continues to be the order of the day in Baghdad. Similarly, Erbil could be reminded that any precedent of administrative control of territory being established outside of political agreement can be followed in the future by a much larger and better equipped Iraqi Army once greater coherence emerges in Baghdad. Finally, American officials must be aware of how decisions on the future of U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation affect the parties’ strategic calculations. The KRG in particular views the stationing of American troops anywhere in Iraq after 2011 as vital to its security, and the United States should actively consider how any Iraqi government request to extend the American military presence can creatively be used to foster political compromise on this key driver of instability in the country.

Sean Kane is the program officer for Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded organization which works on international conflict. The views in this article are his own.

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