An Iraqi Shia militia. AFP photo
The recent clashes between Iraqi Shia militia the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and Kurdish Peshmerga in the mixed Kurdish town of Tuz Khurmatu earlier this month was a worrying incident. It was also a depressing reminder of the potentiality that simmering tensions between the Kurds and elements within the Shias over disputed territories could escalate into further conflict and bloodshed.
The Kurdish claim over Kirkuk for example is something that some Iranian-backed Shia militias are resolutely opposed to, and in that area they certainly have the means to forcefully oppose the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) regardless of whether or not Article 140 is finally implemented.
The central government in Baghdad has a responsibility to reign in these militias and ensure that issues pertaining to disputed territories are resolved by negotiations or referendum, not by brute force. Especially if it wants to be seen as a legitimate authority for the increasingly divided polity that is today’s Iraqi state.
But that's the thing: There are very worrying signs that in some places these militia groups are in fact eclipsing the central government who mightn't be able to reign them in if they, say, attacked the Kurds and/or Peshmerga in Kirkuk or elsewhere. A worrying Reuters investigation from last month found that these militias may soon be in a position whereby they outgun the state and can do essentially whatever they want regardless of whatever Baghdad's official policy or stance happens to be.
Clashes in Tuz Khurmatu were halted due to Iran's arbitration between the two sides. Not Baghdad's. That itself was telling about who has the real clout among such groups. Sure Baghdad's resources--like everyone else fighting ISIS in Iraq--are understandably stretched. But the tenuous control it has over many of these militia groups is surely something that Erbil has the right to worry about. Especially in light of the complete failure of anyone but their own comparably lightly-armed Peshmerga to defend not only Kirkuk but the internationally-recognized KRG territories, including Erbil, in August 2014. There is no reason to believe that an attempt by any of the Shia militia group ostensibly under Baghdad's command today could be halted by that government if they were to take aggressive actions against the KRG.
Not only is Baghdad's ability to prevent the KRG region from being attacked by any of these groups in serious question but rigorous upholding of the 'One Iraq' policy (which is strictly adhered to by the United States) is seeing the Peshmerga being allotted small quantities of armaments and supplies with which to defend itself against ISIS and, likely, put substantial manpower and resources into any future effort to wrest Mosul from ISIS's control. In stark contrast the PMF have been seen brandishing hardware originally designated to the Iraqi military. All the while shipments of arms from Europe going through Baghdad (which include additional supplies for their forces too) have routinely been increasingly denied permission to finish their journey's to deliver arms to Erbil.
This coupled with the fact that Baghdad pays the salaries of many of these militias while not maintaining full command-and-control over them (which was evident when Iranian-backed Shia militias planned and initiated the offensive against ISIS in Tikrit by themselves earlier this year) demonstrates just how untenable such a status quo is from Erbil's perspective. Since this ISIS crisis gripped Iraq the Kurds were conclusively shown what they already, and always, knew: That they can only count on themselves and their own Peshmerga to secure and safeguard their homeland.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist and political writer who writes on Middle East affairs, politics, developments and history. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.