Iraq’s Northern Front Is… Complicated
Baghdad’s losses could be Erbil’s gains
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group has taken the cities of Fallujah and Mosul in northwestern Iraq and could attack Baghdad soon. ISIS is ruthless and serious and, having seized government arsenals and $2.4 billion from banks, well-armed and well-funded.
By contrast, the Iraqi army is disorganized and fractured as it scrambles to defend the capital. But Baghdad’s Shia army isn’t likely to just give up. Iraq’s future is very much in the balance.
But while world is preoccupied with events in the south, an equally important struggle is taking place in Iraq’s north, in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Kurdish peshmerga militia have already moved to defend the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after Iraqi army troops fled.
In the past, Baghdad has told the Kurds to keep their hands off of Kirkuk. But with the national government having abandoned northern cities—which are home to both Arabs and Kurds—the Kurdish Regional Government is both meeting an urgent need … and seizing a rare opportunity.
As they assert their power, the Kurds stand to gain more independence, legitimacy and influence in regional politics.
The Kurdish people are the largest cultural group in the world without a country of their own. For a century they’ve fought to assert themselves. Peshmerga served the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Since then, they’ve largely fought as irregulars on various—and sometimes competing—sides of regional conflicts in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Their bloodiest and most public conflict, though, was their long blood feud with the Iraqi Ba’athists, particularly late president Saddam Hussein.
Hussein, an Arab, was never shy about his deep hatred for the Kurds. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, pesh fighters formed an alliance with Iranian forces hoping to loosen Hussein’s oppressive grip on their homeland. This alliance helped the Iranians gain ground on the northern front. But it cost the Kurds dearly.
The Ba’athists fought back ruthlessly, launching the punitive anfal campaign with Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan Al Majid in charge. He would come to be known as “Chemical Ali” for his enthusiastic deployment of mustard gas. In 1988, Iraqi gas killed 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja.
In all, as many as 182,000 Kurds died in the anfal between 1986 and 1989.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds fought on the side of the U.S.-led coalition. Peshmerga led a northern uprising timed to coincide with a Shia revolt in the south. The Americans encouraged the twin uprisings but did not offer much in the way of material support. Iraqi helicopters chased the Kurdish rebels into the mountains.
Great Britain sent in troops to protect Kurdish refugees. The Brits guilt-tripped the Americans into setting up a no-fly zone, extending relative safety to the Kurdish homeland for the first time in decades.
Iraqi Kurdistan flourished. It developed its own economy, held its own elections and forged its own identity. Kurds are overwhelming Sunnis, but some are Shia, Christian or Yizidi. There’s also a thriving Jewish Kurdish population in Israel.
Autonomous Kurdistan wasn’t always entirely peaceful.
From 1995 to ’98, the Kurdish Democratic Party under Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan under Jalal Talabani fought a civil war. The Washington Peace Accords ended the fighting but not the rivalry.
In 2003, the Kurds fought alongside American paratroopers against Hussein’s forces. Talabani became Iraq’s president under prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. Barzani became president of the KRG in 2005.
The Kurds mostly stayed out of the long insurgency that followed the 2003 invasion—although Kurdish Iraqi army units did deploy to the south to aid the Americans and Baghdad’s Arab troops.
The peshmerga evolved into professional security force. The pesh are well-equipped with tanks, artillery and aircraft.
The Kurds also set up their own intelligence agencies, separate from those of the central government. The asayish intelligence troops command a wide network of informants.
The Kurds developed their region’s oil resources and aggressively courted outside investment, often without the approval of central authorities. This resulted in serious friction between the Kurdish capitol in Erbil and Baghdad. After the Americans left in 2011, Iraqi Arab troops and the pesh even came to blows.
Lately the KRG has benefited from increasing, and surprising, support from Turkey. Ankara has a troubled relationship with the Kurds, owing to its own battles with the Kurdish PKK separatist group. Last year, Turkish and PKK leaders finally agreed to a ceasefire.
As a result of that conflict, Turkey has often viewed Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy with skepticism. But as the Kurdish economy has improved along with strengthening economic ties between Kurds and Turks, Erbil and Ankara have become tacit allies if not actual friends.
Kurdish fighters have found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war. Syrian-Kurdish militias carved out their own section of Syria, simultaneously fighting ISIS, the rebel Free Syrian Army and the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.
Some more conservative Kurds, particularly from the area around Halabja, went to fight for the Islamists.
Many Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war have found safety in Kurdistan. The Kurds, though aggressive in pursuit of their interests, have shown a willingness to shelter Arabs. The Kurdish enclave is a relative safe haven for the whole region.
Fighting for the future
The wars in Syria and Iraq now overlap. It’s gotten so bad that Americans and Iranians are considering the unthinkable—working together to protect Baghdad.
As the situation deteriorated, the Kurds’ seizure of Kirkuk raised eyebrows. It’s the boldest action the Kurds have taken since 2003. Upon entering the city, the pesh immediately raised a Kurdish flag. Peshmerga have also been helping themselves to weapons and heavy equipment the Iraqi army left behind.
“We don’t want to see the country in chaos and flames,” Qubad Talabani, the KRG’s incoming deputy prime minister and the son of president Talabani, told The Daily Beast. “We don’t want to benefit from the country’s instability.”
Talibani insists that the move into Kirkuk is not a land grab, but a move to protect the city. He said that Kirkuk still belongs to the people of Kirkuk.
ISIS has also been helping itself to abandoned weapons. Although Kirkuk is firmly under Kurdish control, clashes are a regular occurrence in surrounding areas.
More Iraqis are fleeing ISIS-controlled cities hoping to find refuge with the Kurds. ISIS has been particularly ruthless towards Iraqi Christians and made a public show of destroying ancient Christians sites in Mosul. Almost all of Iraq’s Christians, even senior clergy, are fleeing.
Kurdish authorities have already set up refugee camps for this new wave of displaced people.
But despite the Kurdish tradition of hospitality, the KRG is approaching the situation cautiously. The asayish have set up checkpoints to screen refugees. Indeed, some of the refugees are avowed ISIS sympathizers, heading north to escape Iraqi government air strikes.
One Iraqi soldier who fought alongside the Americans insists Kurdish motives are not so benign. He told McClatchy reporters that the Kurds have helped fuel the current crisis, insisting that Kurdish militia and intelligence agents intentionally disrupted Iraqi army operations as the army struggled to hold Tikrit and Mosul.
But although Al Maliki’s weakness offers potential opportunities, a strong ISIS on their southern border is not in Kurdish interests. Kurdish troops have deployed as far south as Baqubah to aid the Iraqi army. Baqubah is just before Baghdad in the Islamists’ path.
A BBC camera crew recently captured Kurdish troops in action against ISIS in Jalula. Journalist Benjamin Hall reported that the rebels are better equipped than expected, and that Iraqi close air support has been inaccurate. An Iraqi helicopter killed six pesh in a friendly-fire incident.
The Kurds are fighting to save Iraq and themselves from the Islamists. But Baghdad’s defeat could, in a way, be Erbil’s gain. As long as as the south’s collapse doesn’t leave the KRG standing alone against ISIS.
It’s an unholy mess—and the end result could be an even more independent Kurdistan. One war at a time, Iraq’s Kurds are getting what they’ve long wanted. But at great cost. And great risk.