The Cable

Last-Minute Talks Calm Iraqi, Kurdish Troops Facing Off Over Kirkuk

Frantic negotiations headed off a confrontation, but tensions are rising in the region.

Iraq military vehicles parked outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, on Oct. 13. (Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraq military vehicles parked outside of Kirkuk, Iraq, on Oct. 13. (Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images)

Tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan have risen sharply in the last two days after Iraqi security forces advanced through Kurdish militia lines just south of the disputed city of Kirkuk.

The showdown is the capstone to an escalating war of words between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds after Erbil held an independence referendum in late September. Baghdad — like most of the international community — condemned the move, but Erbil felt emboldened by the overwhelming support it received from voters.

The two sides stopped short of direct confrontation last night after eleventh-hour negotiations between factions within the Kurdish government and Baghdad. Iraq sent security and militia forces toward Kirkuk, home to some of the biggest oil fields in Iraq and which was occupied by Kurdish forces during the fight against the Islamic State in 2014. Iraq wants those areas back.

“Had the Iraqi forces kept moving for another 15 minutes, they would have hit the first red line, you could say, and would have been fired upon,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Other Iraqi military units and Popular Mobilization Force militias have also massed forces around Kirkuk, long a bone of contention between the central government and the semi-autonomous northern region.

“We have seen a very significant buildup of Iraqi military and PMF to the south and west of Kirkuk,” said Bayan Abdul Rahman, the U.S. representative of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG. “They have heavy equipment, tanks, mortars, and Humvees,” she said.

That prompted KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to call for the United States, United Nations, and EU to “urgently intervene to prevent a new war in the region.”

An Iraqi government official confirmed that Iraqi forces were in the area, but denied that their intentions were hostile.

“The presence of the [Iraqi Security Forces] is to maintain discipline in the area, and they have been dispatched there as a precautionary measure to prevent escalation, slippage or clashes from undisciplined factions on the ground,” he told Foreign Policy.

The State Department, which urged Erbil not to carry out the referendum but then took a hands-off approach to the simmering crisis, said that it is watching the situation closely.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters that “my forces are integrated among these forces and they are working too, to make certain we keep any potential for conflict off the table.” Urging both sides to focus on the campaign against the Islamic State, he added, “we don’t want this to go to a shooting situation.”

Despite the rising temperature of the conflict, the talks that temporarily defused the standoff marked the first direct negotiations between Kurdish representatives and Baghdad over the fallout of the September referendum. Baghdad reportedly talked with a faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan and a counterweight to Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP.

Though the talks have thus far been limited to tactical de-escalation, according to Knights, they may eventually open a new line of communication between the two sides. After the referendum, Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has been politically unable to reach out to Barzani, who promoted the referendum push and vowed afterward to make independence a reality.

“You can’t ignore the Barzanis, but it’s very hard for them to talk to Baghdad, or vice versa,” said Knights. “What it might do is establish a non-Barzani line of communication between Abadi and the KRG,” said Knights.

“Those are the people who Abadi wants to be talking with,” he said.

Thursday’s escalation was only the latest in a series of moves after the referendum. In the days after the vote, Baghdad took control of land borders and banned international flights into Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports.

More recently, the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council issued arrest warrants for the chairman of the Kurdish independence referendum commission and two aides for “violating a valid (Iraqi) court ruling” banning the independence vote as against the Constitution.

Neighboring Iran and Turkey, both with large Kurdish populations of their own, have backed Baghdad’s stance. Turkey has threatened to shut down pipelines that allow the KRG to export crude oil, but has yet to follow through.

Photo credit: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.

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