With Kirkuk already in their hands, the Kurds could ask for the city as the big payoff for riding to Baghdad’s aid. Photo: Rudaw
BARCELONA, Spain – The Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga military, which may have to confront Islamic militants seizing large parts of Iraq’s Sunni areas and advancing toward Baghdad, is a disciplined force that is already filling the vacuum left by the collapsed Iraqi Army.
The Peshmerga, controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, moved into Kirkuk on Thursday, saying they could not risk the city’s Kurdish population – and vast energy resources that include some of Iraq’s largest oilfields – falling to the jihadi Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Although the White House said Thursday that “air strikes are among the options on the table,” military experts stress that the militants cannot be flushed out without ground fighting. The US, which pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 and is disengaging in wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan, is highly unlikely to return boots on the ground in Iraq.
That is why all eyes are on the Peshmerga.
“Kurds don’t have planes like the Iraqi army but they have modern weapons,” said Jordi Tejel, professor of international history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
He also noted their “experience in fighting, internal discipline and – most importantly -- the support of the Kurdish population before the jihadist threats.”
Tejel, the author of several books and articles on the Kurds, added that the “ISIS does not have support in Sunni areas and depends only on foreign militiamen of different origins. They don’t know the region like the Kurds do.”
Since last Tuesday, the ISIS has captured several cities and towns, including Mosul, Tikrit and Diyala. Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and Tikrit is the birthplace of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Since last year the group, which appears to have allied with former loyalists of Saddam’s Baath party in the Iraq fighting, has been trying to control the Sunni cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
For now, experts say, the Kurdistan Region itself is safe from the jihadis. The militants have declared their quarrel is only with Maliki’s Shiite-led government, which they accuse of abusing the country’s fellow Sunni population since Saddam’s downfall.
The exact numbers of the Peshmerga are not officially known. In 2005, their strength was estimated at 180,000, and a recent report by CBS News in the United States said they number some 375,000. Kurdish sources say 200,000 men and women are enrolled in the force.
Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani and Iraq’s ethnically Kurdish President Jalal Talabani have been former Peshmargas; on the walls of Kurdish homes, it is not uncommon to find portraits of martyred Peshmerga soldiers killed in the various wars with Saddam’s forces.
At present, the Peshmerga also appear to be the best bargaining chip for the KRG to sue for long-standing demands against Baghdad and the United States.
“Undoubtedly, this situation is a historical occasion for the Kurdish people of Iraq,” said Manuel Martorell, a journalist and author of several books about Kurdistan.
He noted the Kurdish list of demands from Baghdad: The right to independently export Kurdish oil and gas; that Baghdad pay the full 17 percent of the national budget that the KRG is constitutionally entitled to; a resolution to Kirkuk and other “disputed territories”; salary payments and running costs for the Peshmerga; dues owed to foreign oil companies working in Kurdistan.
Also, with Kirkuk already in their hands, the Kurds could ask for the city as the big payoff for riding to Baghdad’s aid.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad will cooperate with the Kurdish forces to combat the ISIS militants.
Fighting for Baghdad “probably will take a big toll in Peshmerga ranks,” said Mortorell, and “should include rewards by Western governments also, in the form of modern weapons for the Kurdish government, particularly air power.”
Vera Eccarius-Kelly, an expert on the Kurds at New York’s Siena College, agreed that the Kurds are unlikely to want to act without the promise off their own problems with Baghdad getting solved.
“It is too late for Baghdad to ask for Kurdish help unless further and significant regional concessions are made. Otherwise, The Kurds will look for a deal for themselves.”