Kurdistan and Iraqi flags flying side-by-side over Kirkuk castle. Photo: Rudaw
The long awaited operation to remove ISIS from their last significant Iraqi stronghold, the town of Hawija in Kirkuk Province, is set to transpire in the near future. Even before the militants are removed, however, there are already some fears that a new conflict will ensue over Kirkuk's future.
“The Iraqi Army will control Hawija after ISIS,” Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute and an expert on Iraq, told Rudaw English.
“There won't be any real coordination,” he went on to say about the potential of a combined Iraqi Army-Peshmerga offensive. “But as the Peshmerga are unlikely to advance, there doesn't need to be much.”
Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim has expressed his frustration on numerous occasions over the fact that the Iraqi military bypassed Hawija in favour of first removing the militants from Mosul further north. Given its proximity to Kirkuk, ISIS-occupied Hawija has long represented a threat to the region.
Some argue that Hawija will remain a problem even after the complete removal of ISIS. Peshmerga commander Kamal Kirkuki strongly argued as much, pointing out that Hawija has been a staging point for attacks on Peshmerga positions in Kirkuk for many years. These people, he said, “worked for Saddam Hussein in the past, then for al-Qaeda and now they work for ISIS. If tomorrow another gruesome group comes to the region they will work for them too.”
Joel Wing, an Iraq expert who runs the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English that “Hawija has been blamed for destabilizing Diyala and Salahaddin more than Kirkuk.”
“For months officials from those two provinces have been warning that Islamic State cells have come from Hawija into their areas,” he elaborated. “In recent months the number and more importantly the types of attacks in those two governorates have intensified.”
With the exception of ISIS' major infiltration into Kirkuk city on October 21, 2016, “there are actually very few attacks by ISIS in the province. Most incidents are people attempting to flee Hawija being executed or hit by IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” said Wing.
“Last month however, the insurgents have picked up their attacks upon the Peshmerga lines,” Wing added. “Probably testing their defenses since they know the Hawija operation is coming up.”
Knight concluded by anticipating that: “The more pressing issue may be a lack of coordination between Iraqi Army and Hashd and whether Hashd will do anything to the locals” of that Sunni-majority town.
An increased presence of Iranian-backed Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary groups could pose a major threat to the Kurdish-controlled region. Early this month the leaders of the Imam Ali Division and the Badr Organization both said they are willing to wage war if Kirkuk becomes part of the Kurdistan Region after participating in the September 25 referendum.
Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's (IRGC) extraterritorial Quds Force, is also staunchly opposed to the referendum. A source briefed on a meeting between senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) members and Soleimani told Al Monitor that the Iranian commander had a not so subtle warning for the Kurds.
“Until now, we have held back the [Hashd] from attacking, but I will not bother to do that anymore,” Soleimani said before going on to add that the Mandali incident this month – when armed Iranian-backed Hashd entered the town of Mandali in Diyala province, took down the Kurdistan flag and essentially forced the local council to remove the mayor in order to prevent that town from participating in the referendum – “is the beginning.”
Dr Jutyar Mahmoud of the Kurdistan Region's independence referendum commission told Middle East Eye that these forces pose a greater threat to Kirkuk than the Iraqi Army, speculating that “maybe Iran will push them to fight us” and arguing that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, “doesn't control the Hashd, but Iran can.”
Long before the independence referendum, Peshmerga officials in Kirkuk have expressed their worries over the Hashd build-up south of their positions, believing them to be massing these forces to fight them rather than just remove ISIS from Hawija.
Others in the region fear an Iranian-instigated attack against Kurdish forces in Kirkuk regardless of whether or not there is a referendum. Veteran Peshmerga commander Mohammed Haji Mahmud, known as Kaka Hama, says that “with or without referendum” the Peshmerga are expecting clashes with the Hashd.
In the meantime Wing believes the real risk will come from “some local forces getting into an argument that escalates into shooting.”
“I think clashes might break out along the disputed territories not just Kirkuk,” he concluded. “If it happens it will likely be because of a local escalation not a plan by Baghdad to provoke the Kurdistan Region.”
This is essentially what happened in April 2016 when local clashes between Kurds and Shiite Turkmen in Tuz Khurmatu flared up, resulting in the Hashd and Peshmerga rushing troops to that flashpoint to support their forces. A wider escalation was avoided as a result of negotiations between representatives from both sides.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has remained steadfast on Kirkuk's participation in the referendum, telling the BBC that: “If any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it.”