A Peshmerga soldier keeps his eyes on the battlefield during a Kurdish-Iraqi-Coalition forces anti-ISIS operation on Mount Qarachogh on the Makhmour Front that began on July 16, 2017. Photo: Rudaw
Monday's ground operation, in which the U.S.-led coalition coordinated an Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish Peshmerga attack on the Islamic State (ISIS) in the same part of the Makhmour front
, is a reminder of the importance of working to reverse the calamitous October events in the wider region.
Despite Baghdad's declaration of victory over ISIS last December, the group is still waging quite a lethal insurgency in Kirkuk, Saladin, and Diyala. Baghdad's aggressive military takeover of the major disputed, Kurdistani territories last October created instability — not unlike the situations which ISIS previously is known to have exploited.
In late June, after ISIS executed eight members of the Iraqi security forces on the Baghdad-Kirkuk road, the Iraqi government immediately executed 13 ISIS members it already had on death row. Baghdad is calling its current operation, launched early this month, against ISIS in the disputed territories "Revenge for the Martyrs" after those eight murdered security personnel. This continued military activity in the area is a clear sign that ISIS remains a threat and could re-emerge if these areas aren't adequately secured and stabilized.
Effective coordination between Iraqi security and Peshmerga forces could effectively rout the militants, since the Kurds are more familiar with many of these areas than the Iraqis and the Iraqi forces could bring more firepower to bear than the Peshmerga.
The only reason such coordination has not been commonplace in recent months was because of Baghdad's aggression last October. Its takeover of the disputed territories in effect ended hitherto historic cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. October 2016 was widely hailed as the month the Kurds and Iraqis worked together militarily for the first time, while October 2017 marked the most serious confrontation between the two since the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Even after Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced Kurdistan’s referendum on independence last summer, he stressed the security mechanism between the Peshmerga and the ISF would continue following any potential Kurdish secession because both sides face common threats, ISIS being a perfect example. But the Kurds are once again wary of trusting Baghdad for obvious reasons.
While Monday's operation, largely coordinated through the coalition which supports both sides and invariably urges convergence, seemingly signified the potential of broader ISF-Peshmerga coordination Sirwan Barzani, the Peshmerga commander of the Gwer-Makhmour front, told Kurdistan 24 that there are no plans for any serious joint ISF-Peshmerga cooperation nor operations. He also sought to emphasize that the Peshmerga is working directly with the coalition against ISIS, not the ISF.
Just earlier this month the Peshmerga denied
an ISF request to permit them access into territories under their control to carry out raids against ISIS. Some reports over the last few months indicated that a Peshmerga return to Kirkuk, and a rough restoration of the pre-June 2014 status quo, was on the agenda. The secretary-general of the Peshmerga Ministry, Jabar Yawar, flatly denied
such reports in April.
Russia's state-run Sputnik News reported this month that talks are underway for such a return, which could include joint administration of the city and the withdrawal of the Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries, whose presence in the Sunni-majority region is problematic for obvious reasons. As with earlier reports such claims should be treated with a heavy dose of skepticism.
However, it's past due time Iraq facilitated a Peshmerga return to Kirkuk. This isn't asking much of Baghdad since a Peshmerga return now wouldn't restore the situation in Kirkuk to what it was between June 2014 and October 2017, when it was completely administered by Kurds and the Peshmerga were the sole military force there, following the ISF's haphazard abandonment of the province shortly after ISIS infamously captured Mosul.
What's become clear over the past nine months is that the security gaps caused by Iraqi action in October have only benefited ISIS. To reverse such a deplorable state of affairs, Baghdad should immediately facilitate the return of the Peshmerga to jointly secure that region with its ISF, excluding the Hashd, which would actually be in its own interests.
Iraq is presently using its elite counter-terrorism forces and the Army's 9th Division in Basra, more than 800 kilometers from Kirkuk, to crackdown widespread protests. At the same time, a moribund ISIS is trying to make a resurgence. Consequently, the Peshmerga should be permitted to return to Kirkuk as a first step toward finally resolving the status of that and the other disputed territories under Article 140, or a comparable legal arrangement. Until all this happens it's only really a matter of time before another crisis emerges as a result of this untenable status quo.