Ever since the Iraqi army and Shiite militias took over Kirkuk and other disputed territories in October 2017, Kurdish media has carried stories about the declining security situation there. For Kurdish residents of these areas facing abuses from security forces and non-Kurdish neighbors, it’s an old story in Iraq and not too surprising. Claims that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) is resurging in Kirkuk especially, on the other hand, need to be considered carefully.
Kurdish officials and media have a clear interest in promoting a narrative wherein Iraqi security forces are failing to provide security and stem the resurgence of ISIS. Such a narrative casts Baghdad as out of touch with local realities, politically uncaring and incompetent on security matters. The narrative also implicitly presents the Peshmerga, Kurdish police and Asayish as much more local, competent and reliable forces.
Officials in Baghdad thus regularly scoffed at and ridiculed Kurdish suggestions that the security situation in Kirkuk worsened after the Peshmerga were pushed out of the area. Even U.S. officials downplayed such claims, with U.S. Brigadier General Andrew A. Croft (deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq) telling
news on March 28 that “Actually, I think the situation's [in Kirkuk] gotten a lot better since October.”
Lacking publicly available data on the number of ISIS attacks in Kirkuk and other disputed territories since October 2017, it remains difficult for unbiased sources to evaluate these contradictory claims. Anecdotal indications of a worsened security situation, from bombings to killings on the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway, seem insufficient for any real assessment. We can, however, look to less direct evidence. On July 2, Baghdad ordered two of its best combat brigades (from the Iraqi Federal Police) to leave areas in the Sunni triangle and head to Kirkuk. According to a source in Kirkuk, the two brigades were “equipped with heavy weapons, tanks, and armored vehicles.”
There has also been a recent uptick in U.S. calls for renewed Erbil-Baghdad cooperation against ISIS, along with more security meetings between Peshmerga officials and American military officials. Operations with U.S. participation in places like the Hamrin mountains, Makhmour, Kirkuk and elsewhere to attack ISIS likewise seem to have increased since April. In a meeting this week between Peshmerga officials and the American-led anti-ISIS coalition (Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve — CJTF-OIR), “both sides agreed on the need for an immediate review of security and military plans in the disputed areas.”
These are the usual kinds of indirect indicators that there is indeed a worsening problem. The Kurdish narrative about a worsening situation in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, rather than Baghdad’s account or that of Brigadier General Croft in March, seems vindicated. Although some claims, such as Head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council Rebwar Talabani’s July 2 statement to K24
news that “ ‘Fifty Daesh (IS) fighters could take the city,’ right now” may be overblown, the general narrative of Baghdad botching its control over disputed territories seems increasingly accurate. It is quite likely that Kurdish security forces, and particularly the Asayish intelligence forces, simply know these areas better than officials from Baghdad and their appointees. They may also be more competent with such matters.
The question Kurds need to ask themselves, however, is “Should they help?” Given how events unfolded in October 2017, when Baghdad forcibly retook control of these areas, perhaps the best approach is not to repeatedly request that Baghdad call Peshmerga forces back in for assistance. It might be better to sit back and enjoy the spectacle for a while, at least until Baghdad and the Americans ask the Peshmerga for help in these areas. Although it is difficult to watch civilians in these areas — especially the civilians there who are supportive of the Kurdistan Regional Government — at risk, perhaps it is the turn of other security forces to bleed in Kirkuk for a while.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.