Iraqi-Kurdish Clash in Kirkuk Opens Door to More Iranian Influence

Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum sparked a showdown with Baghdad, leaving Washington fighting the Islamic State and Tehran taking advantage.

Iraqi forces advance toward the center of Kirkuk during an operation on Oct. 16. (AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi forces advance toward the center of Kirkuk during an operation on Oct. 16. (AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is scrambling to defuse tensions between two allies in the fight against the Islamic State that have turned on each other, leaving its Iraq policy in disarray and opening the door for greater Iranian influence in the country.

On Sunday night, U.S.-armed and -trained Iraqi government forces clashed with U.S.-armed and -trained Kurdish forces in the disputed city of Kirkuk. By Monday, Iraqi forces had reclaimed the city, a military base, the airport, and major oil fields nearby while thousands of Kirkuk residents fled north.

U.S. Defense Department officials quickly tried to downplay the severity of the overnight clashes, saying they were simply caused by a “misunderstanding” between the two sides. One military officer told Foreign Policy that reports of fighting have been overblown by “extreme” elements on both sides, and aside from the weekend firefight, “things have been relatively coordinated.” (The Pentagon later tried to characterize the movement as a fight against the Islamic State.)

While the fighting stopped, the war of words continued. The Iraqi government in a statement Monday blamed some Kurds for carrying out a “concerted misinformation campaign” to “cover up their sinister actions” to disrupt Iraqi security forces sent in to take possession of the installations in Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, a senior official in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) tweeted Monday that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “will pay a heavy price” for the move.

Top U.S. administration officials think the Islamic State and Iran will be the biggest beneficiaries if the showdown continues. “All sides need to stand down and refrain from any further provocative or escalatory actions. The biggest winners from further tensions would be ISIS and [Iran’s] Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — an outcome we should all want to avoid,” a National Security Council spokesperson told FP, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Iran has used the confrontation to deepen its involvement in Iraqi politics. Iranian-backed militias joined the troops Baghdad sent to Kirkuk, and reports emerged that the head of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, was entering Kirkuk to hold talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials.

Some experts expect that the Iranian support for Baghdad in the fight over Kirkuk will rebound to Tehran’s benefit. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, forecast greater Iranian influence within the Iraqi government and greater popular support for Iran-backed candidates for Iraq’s elections, slated for next spring.

The clashes and the heated rhetoric underscore the depth of ill will between Baghdad and Erbil, the seat of the KRG, since Iraqi Kurdistan carried out an independence referendum on Sept. 25 despite a chorus of protests from Baghdad, Washington, and European allies.

The United States, which took a hands-off approach to the brewing crisis in the wake of the referendum, seems inclined to keep aloof from what many see as an internal Iraqi political fight.

The United States is “not taking sides” in the conflict, President Donald Trump said Monday, while the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad echoed the Pentagon’s focus on the counterterrorism fight.

“ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace,” the embassy said in a statement released Monday. A State Department spokesperson told FP that U.S. officials are working with all sides to de-escalate tensions.

But that’s a tall order, too. Kurdish leaders seethe about some top U.S. diplomats — especially Brett McGurk, the administration’s point man for the fight against the Islamic State — feeling they are too ready to side with the government in Baghdad. And some Kurds, who were instrumental in halting the Islamic State’s 2014 offensive and in the fights ever since to reclaim territory, feel Washington is tossing them aside now that the danger is past. Kurdish officials are still waiting for a $300 million military aid package the Trump administration promised in April but which has yet to arrive.

Some top lawmakers had harsher words for Baghdad, especially given the amount of U.S. military aid that had been earmarked for the campaign against the Islamic State.

“Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement released Monday.

The showdown between Iraq’s central government and the restive northern region represents a diplomatic failure for Washington, said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

After Kurdish officials announced this summer that they would hold the controversial referendum — bucking U.S. policy in support of a unified Iraq — Washington was slow to respond, only attempting an 11th-hour mediation when it was already too late. Now, a key U.S. military partner is at loggerheads with another, all while rival Iran is taking advantage of the disarray to make further inroads into Iraq.

“U.S. policymakers need to focus on these kind of issues before they become a crisis, not during a crisis,” Knights said. “Prevention is better than the cure.”

FP‘s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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