Members of the security forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guard the main gate of the Iraqi North Oil Company in March 2017. Photo: Rudaw video
Since the Kurdish Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk last October 16, the Islamic State (ISIS) has launched a violent insurgency in the province and its surroundings. While reports of the US-led coalition negotiating a return of Peshmerga forces to parts of the province have been denied by the Peshmerga Ministry such a return would prove to be a very important factor in restoring security and stability there.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's declaration of victory over ISIS last December already looks naively premature. For months now ISIS has carried out insurgency campaigns in various parts of the country despite the fact the physical caliphate it declared over one-third of Iraq, and large swathes of eastern Syria, has been destroyed. This is a clear reversion the group has made back to its roots as a non-state terrorist group shrewdly exploits political instability in Iraq to its advantage.
Kirkuk has run the risk in recent months of becoming dangerously destabilized. Baghdad's seizure the province in October 2017 sent shock-waves throughout the Kurdistan Region, left a security vacuum there – the Peshmerga had been the only force to prevent ISIS from overrunning the province since the fateful summer of 2014 – and created unprecedented distrust of the post-2003 Iraq in Kurdistan.
Not long after the events of October 16 – which came after an Iraqi operation against its last stronghold in the province, Hawija – ISIS began carrying out hit-and-run attacks wherever they could against the Iraqi military forces and Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries in Kirkuk. These attacks are still being carried out intermittently.
While relations between Baghdad and Erbil were severely strained following the latter's independence referendum last September, and the former's leveling of punitive measures against the autonomous region, they are gradually improving. These improving relations could be further built upon by the two sides establishing a new arrangement under which the Peshmerga can begin to return to Kirkuk to help secure the province and protect its Kurdish majority population.
Some Iraqi figures have argued that the Peshmerga is not needed and that Iraq has the situation under control. For example, the Shiite Hashd leader Karim Nuri recently told Rudaw that: "The territories outside [the Kurdistan] Region are up to the federal government. It has enough forces and I think there is no need for more forces. Peshmerga will stay in the region."
Even if this is so the Peshmerga and other Kurdish security and intelligence units have much more experience fighting ISIS in Kirkuk than the Iraqis and are, more likely than not, trusted more among many of the local Kurdish population than the Hashd.
"Since the federal forces moved into Kirkuk in October there has been a decided increase in violence in both the south and within Kirkuk city as well," Iraq analyst Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English.
There were reports of US officials mediating between Erbil and Baghdad regarding the return of Peshmerga to disputed areas — reports the Ministry of Peshmerga first confirmed, but then denied, saying nothing had been finalized.
"Part of that is due to the gap between the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces and the lack of coordination between the two," he elaborated. "The United States has been mediating meetings between the two to try to get the Peshmerga to return to sections of the province and to set up a joint operations command so the two can cooperate. It looks like this will eventually happen and will hopefully close those open spaces and help subdue the insurgency."
Wing presumes that it will mostly be Peshmerga loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party that will return to Kirkuk if any arrangement is made. Before October 16 PUK Peshmerga made up the majority of Kurdish forces in the city.
"But before the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] was in the west as well, so who knows," he concluded.
Michael Knights, an Iraq expert and the Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, told Rudaw English that if the Peshmerga do return "the form of a new joint security mechanism will be considerably different from the years prior to 2014, with the federal government's Kirkuk Operations Command as the coordination headquarters."
(In February it was reported in the Iraqi press that Peshmerga forces, likely loyal to the PUK, were coordinating with Iraq in volatile Tuz Khurmatu south of Kirkuk against ISIS and the mysterious White Flags group.)
Facilitating a return of the Peshmerga to Kirkuk would prove that Baghdad recognizes the salient fact that Kirkuk remains a disputed province – something the US State Department made a point of reiterating following October's events – which should be jointly-controlled until either Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, or some alternative arrangement with comparable criteria, is implemented to conclusively resolve the region's status once and for all.