Defaced Kurdistan flags at a former Peshmerga position in Tuz Khurmatu now held by Iraqi forces on Friday. Photo: AFP
As Kurdish Peshmerga troops are preparing for a possible Iraqi Army and Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi attack on Kirkuk, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi needs to demonstrate real leadership and political acumen by working to avert any possibility of a destructive war breaking out.
After the Iraqi parliament compelled Abadi to send the army into the city and seize its oil facilities late last month, the Iraqi premier tweeted that: “We defend our Kurdish citizens as we defend all Iraqis and will not allow any attack on them.”
This came after a month of hostile threats from Iranian-backed units of the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries to attack Peshmerga in the city. These paramilitaries are recognized by the Iraqi government as a parallel force to the regular army which, unlike the Peshmerga, receive government salaries.
Abadi also told the Peshmerga not to confront any Iraqi Army or Hashd forces in Kirkuk, insisting that the Peshmerga has to answer to Baghdad's orders since, in his words, there is only supposed to be “one leadership, not two.”
Even before the Peshmerga took complete control over Kirkuk, saving it from being overrun by ISIS in June 2014 after the Iraqi Army infamously withdrew south, Abadi's predecessor Nouri al-Maliki sought to bring the Kurdish soldiers firmly under Baghdad's command and control. This attempt failed following tense standoffs between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga on Iraq's borders with the autonomous region. Expecting Kurdistan's leadership to relinquish command over the Peshmerga following three years of relying on them, not the Iraqi Army, to defend the region against an existential terrorist threat is unrealistic and completely untenable to Kurds.
Furthermore, Abadi's call for one leadership is peculiar considering that the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) extraterritorial Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, is the one unleashing the Hashd on Kirkuk, as he reportedly warned the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) he would do before the referendum. If this is true then it shows where the real lack of leadership is. Also, if Abadi fails to prevent the Hashd attacking Kirkuk on the orders of Iran, then he will give the Kurds yet another reason to opt for complete secession from Iraq.
On Kirkuk the demands he made on Friday, for the Kurds to surrender all the oilfields, the airport and the K-1 military base, are completely untenable and amount to demanding outright surrender of most of the city, which the Kurds are unlikely to accept.
Ultimately this means that instead of becoming the first Iraqi leader to conclusively resolve the status of Kirkuk, as stipulated by Article 140 of the constitution that he so frequently cites to Kurds, Abadi has permitted the sending of armour and artillery to once again threaten the Kurds through brute force as his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki did before him.
In the run-up to the referendum (when he said, in July, that he would ignore the referendum and not send tanks to Kurdistan) and since, Abadi has clearly been trying to have it both ways. He claims that Baghdad has no intent on harming the people of the Kurdistan Region through its punitive post-referendum measures, just the region's leadership. Shortly after his government closed the airspace over Kurdistan, preventing international flights from flying directly to either Erbil or Sulaimani, Abadi tweeted that: “We will protect the rights of all Iraqis including our Kurdish citizens, we will not punish them for the mistakes of regional officials.”
Threats of banking sanctions on the region will “preserve the interests” of its inhabitants and will only affect the leadership he claims. However economic sanctions, as countless other examples have shown over the years, are usually sweeping by nature and the leaders they are supposed to pressure usually feel the effects of them long after the people do.
Upon suggesting that Turkey transfer revenue made from Kurdish oil exported through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, Abadi claimed that: “Federal government control of oil revenues is in order to pay KR [Kurdistan Region] employee salaries in full and so that money will not go to the corrupt.”
What mechanism Abadi had in mind for such fairer distribution is unclear. Kurdistan's oil has funded development and construction across the region, which was thriving before Baghdad severed Erbil's constitutional share of the federal budget and the beginning of the war with ISIS.
Even in Kirkuk, security and stability improved drastically under the leadership of Governor Najmaldin Karim, which the Iraqi parliament recently voted to sack, to the extent that new roads were being built in the city for the first time in many years.
This was in stark contrast to the southern Iraqi port city of Basra, which has larger oilfields than Kirkuk, but scant development of the local economy. During the summer 2015 social protests in Iraq some protesters held a placard that wittily depicted their province as a bony milking cow. If Abadi is so concerned about fairer distribution of oil revenue in Iraq, he could start by investigating why Basra remains so underdeveloped in spite of being stupendously resource-rich.
The precondition Abadi's government set for negotiations with Erbil aimed at lifting sanctions, and in the long-term averting any potential confrontation in the Kirkuk flashpoint, was Erbil canceling the outcome of the referendum. Even if it were somehow possible to do so, no Kurdish leader could make such an enormous concession just to enter negotiations and expect the people who overwhelmingly voted yes in that referendum to take him seriously.
The Kurdish referendum has sometimes been described by Kurdish officials as the beginnings of an “amicable divorce.” Instead Baghdad has sought to, through measures that do amount to “collective punishment,” lock Erbil into an increasingly abusive and unwanted wedlock while telling the Region's people it's for their own good.
How long such a state-of-affairs can last is unclear. For Abadi to prove his worth in the meantime as a conciliatory and reasonable leader he needs to quit trying to have it both ways and initiate negotiations with Erbil in good faith and iron out the many outstanding issues which remain between them.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.