People celebrate after Iraqi forces and Shiite militias took control of the diverse city of Kirkuk on October 16. Photo: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP
The United States-led coalition will retain forces in Iraq following the battlefield defeat of ISIS and the destruction of its self-styled caliphate in order to stabilize the war-wrecked state. To do so it will need to actively engage with both Baghdad and Erbil regarding the disputed territories between them, implement a power-sharing agreement along with a joint security mechanism and push Baghdad to properly implement Article 140 of the constitution in order to reach a long overdue resolution to this contentious issue.
Almost a year to the day before Iraqi forces stormed into Kirkuk and seized it by force, Washington successfully helped broker what, at the time, was described as historic cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS. The latter stayed out of Mosul after clearing the key routes for the former to reclaim that city. Coordination between the two proved essential to destroying the mutual enemy embodied by the tyrannical caliphate.
When then-Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani began talking about the independence referendum last summer he unequivocally stated that an independent Kurdistan would preserve cooperative arrangements with the ISF, likely in recognition that they both could face common threats in the region and should work together to defeat them.
Instead of seeking to amplify and build upon the success of this cooperation, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi instead decided to impugn the reputation of Kurds and the Peshmerga. He nonsensically equated the Kurdistan Region with ISIS for seeking to exercise its right of self-determination via referendum, and, upon declaring that ISIS is defeated in Iraq on December 9, made no acknowledgement of the Peshmerga's contributions.
More generally, this once "historic" cooperation feels relegated to distant history thanks to Baghdad's recent actions. Iraq's unilateral, and aggressive, move in Kirkuk and the other territories has bred distrust between Baghdad and Erbil of the kind not seen since the pre-2003 era. The large-scale displacement of over 180,000 people in the wider Kirkuk region, mostly Kurds, in particular reminds many in the Kurdistan Region of Saddam Hussein's brutal Arabization there.
Even in light of this flagrant aggression post-referendum, Kurdistan has demonstrated its willingness to make concessions, something which demonstrably shows it is ready for meaningful dialogue with Baghdad on a range of issues including, but not limited to, the future and status of the disputed territories.
While the US State Department was visibly irked by the fact the Kurds went ahead with their referendum, it has since affirmed that Iraq's military takeover of Kirkuk and other territories does not mean they are now undisputed. In light of its own stance, Washington needs to apply pressure on Baghdad to come to the table to ensure that its actions last October do not further destabilize the country at this critical point in time, the immediate aftermath of the military defeat of the ISIS terror entity.
The US-led coalition is already beginning to help Iraq prepare to counter what looks to be an upcoming ISIS insurgency which could prove deadly if not properly dealt with soon, something that would undermine those prior combined Iraq, Kurdish and coalition efforts to destroy the group.
US officials invariably call upon both Baghdad and Erbil to resolve their differences through the constitution. The Kurds have already declared that they are committed to abiding by Article 1 of that constitution and have thus essentially committed to remaining part of Iraq. While Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi pays lip-service to the constitution, his actions in Kirkuk show disregard for perhaps the most neglected article of that constitution, Article 140.
Washington's efforts to stabilize the disputed territories should logically conclude with a diplomatic push for its implementation, or an alternative agreed upon by Baghdad and Erbil. This should follow joint administrative and power-sharing agreements in these areas to ensure their security, something which is of mutual interest to all sides.
The presence of Baghdad-sanctioned Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries in places like Tuz Khurmatu is a source of instability and incubates sectarianism of the kind ISIS, or an ISIS-like group, could exploit. This, coupled with their documented abuses there since October, shows they need to be completely banned from entering that region.
What is also of paramount importance is the safe return home of all residents displaced by Iraq's actions in Kirkuk, which could be supervised by international observers, to ensure Baghdad does not get away with instigating lasting demographic changes in the region in order to solidify control over it – which would be tantamount to permitting a new form of Arabization there.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari recently claimed that "the world owes" Iraq a Marshall Plan-type investment to rebuild the country. No doubt the enormous humanitarian crisis afflicted on Iraq by the war on ISIS, especially the wholesale destruction of Ramadi, Fallujah and large swathes of Mosul along with the continued displacement of millions, warrants continued and even greater international assistance. However, assistance should not be blindly given at a time that Baghdad's own policies unnecessarily contribute to this humanitarian crisis.
Iraq's punitive and petty flight ban over Kurdistan has already made it more difficult for aid agencies to do their important work from and in that secure and stable region – which has hosted nearly two million internally displaced persons (IDP) who felt they had nowhere safer to go since the war against ISIS began. Its aforementioned aggression in Kirkuk also added just under two hundred thousand people to Iraq's IDP population.
It's for these reasons that the United States and the international community need to push Baghdad to take concrete and demonstrable steps away from this aggression by committing to fairly and constitutionally resolving Kirkuk's status before it reverts to an ethnic and sectarian powder keg that could further destabilize and the destroy the region yet again.