Ethnic tensions rise as the battle for Mosul looms
WASHINGTON - Military gains by Kurdish peshmerga forces against Islamic State-held villages near Mosul have raised tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds over the governance of Arab areas of northern Iraq.
Iraqi government officials and some Shia militia forces have warned the Kurds not to enter Mosul — a mostly Sunni Arab city — when the major offensive begins. There seems to be little desire by the Kurds to do so, knowing how problematic it would be.
Kurdish media reports indicated that the offensive against the Islamic State-held villages that began August 14th started with heavy shelling and US air strikes followed by peshmerga ground operations. Despite strong resistance from Islamic State (ISIS), about 12 villages were taken by the peshmerga in relatively short order.
These moves were designed to tighten the noose around Mosul ahead of a major offensive to capture the city.
It also raised the question as to who would lead this major offensive and what happens when the city is eventually taken from ISIS.
US military advisers are working closely with both the peshmerga and Iraqi Army forces to bolster their military readiness. The Kurds have proven to be more effective fighters overall, even though a few newly trained Iraqi Army units have shown they can also fight well.
The Kurds, however, do not have much confidence in the Iraqi Army. In April, Masrour Barzani, the intelligence chief of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), said the regular Iraqi Army is “not in a position to do this [take Mosul] alone”. Three months later, his father, KRG President Masoud Barzani, said that attempting to take Mosul without peshmerga support would be “impossible”.
Such statements have concerned the Iraqi government and its fighters, both Shias and Sunnis. Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said in July that the government would not allow the peshmerga to liberate Mosul and a prominent Shia militia leader issued a similar warning.
There have been some clashes between the peshmerga and other groups in ethnically and religiously mixed areas south of the territory controlled by the KRG. Twelve people in the town of Tuz Khurmatu were killed over the past year in fighting between Kurds and Shia militias, the Washington Post reported. Both groups continue to denigrate each other.
Although the Kurds and the Shias are both opposed to ISIS, there is worry about what would happen next. According to the Washington Post article, a spokesman for the Shia Badr Organisation strongly criticised Masoud Barzani’s statement that the KRG borders are being “redrawn in blood’, suggesting that the Kurds aim to keep territory they have acquired by military force. An Iraqi government spokesman said that any territorial acquisitions were a “temporary thing”.
Former CIA director David Petraeus, who was commander of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Mosul in 2003, recently wrote in the Washington Post on political challenges facing Mosul and its surrounding areas post-ISIS.
The “most significant challenge in Mosul will not be to defeat the Islamic State [but] to ensure post-conflict security, reconstruction and, above all, governance that is representative and responsive to the people,” Petraeus wrote. He recommended establishing a regional council, similar to what he did in Mosul in 2003, made up of every religious, ethnic and tribal group in the area.
Petraeus was circumspect about the composition of the military force that would enter the city. Although he stated that Shia militias should “play no role in post-Islamic State security and governance”, he did not mention the peshmerga. This may reflect a bias of US military commanders (past and present) as to the relative effectiveness of the Kurds in battle.
Interestingly, it is the Kurds themselves who have expressed reservations about securing Mosul because it is largely an ethnically Arab city. Although Masoud Barzani emphasised that the Kurds will be an important component of the offensive to take Mosul, he has also said they will not enter the city. Barzani and other Kurdish officials seem to understand that to do so would exacerbate ethnic tensions and be unmanageable.
Once ISIS is defeated, the Kurds will probably be content to keep Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city they took in 2014 during the ISIS advance, and its surrounding villages. However, Iraq’s majority Arabs do not believe these areas should remain under Kurdish control, a situation that will undoubtedly keep ethnic tensions simmering even post-Mosul.