Iraq Hawija victory overshadowed by Kurdish dispute

October 08, 2017
Swift victory. Fighters from the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) advance through a street in Hawija, on October 5. (AFP)

London- Iraqi forces have retaken Hawija in Kirkuk province from Is­lamic State (ISIS) control but the victory was overshadowed by disputes between the cen­tral government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Ab­adi announced the “liberation of the city of Hawija” while in Paris, calling the military success a “victory not just of Iraq but of the whole world.” Abadi said the next focus would be on ISIS positions on the Syrian bor­der. Militants still hold a few towns in Anbar province.

Abadi urged Kurdish peshmerga forces to continue working with Iraqi forces to defeat ISIS, despite Baghdad’s tensions with Erbil, stressing that “we don’t want armed confrontation” with the KRG.

Relations soured after KRG Presi­dent Masoud Barzani went ahead with a referendum on Kurdish inde­pendence, in which more than 90% of Kurds voted “yes.” That vote took place despite objections from Bagh­dad, which considered it illegal. “Iraq belongs to all Iraqis,” Abadi said, stressing that “separatism is unacceptable.”

Abadi said that only the central government should be allowed to receive income from the country’s oil fields. “Federal government con­trol of oil revenues is in order to pay KR (Kurdistan Region) employee salaries in full,” he said in a tweet.

Baghdad took retaliatory meas­ures after the vote, including an in­ternational flight ban on the north­ern region and financial restrictions, although the latter has been eased.

The central government has de­manded that the KRG hand over control of the border crossings manned by peshmerga forces. It has asked for control of areas that were previously in central government hands before being captured by ISIS militants, who were kicked out by peshmerga with the help of the US-led coalition.

KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee said peshmerga forces have the right to be in areas outside the Kurdistan region, which is made up of the provinces of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimaniyah.

“The Kurdistan region’s military forces, the peshmerga, have been protecting, since ISIS attacks, all people of these areas, regardless of their ethnic or religious back­grounds, from terrorists,” said Di­zayee. “The Kurdistan region’s peshmerga are not foreign forces that came to invade these areas. They are integral to Iraq’s defence system as clearly stated in the Iraqi constitution.”

The inclusion of non-KRG areas in the referendum — most notably the disputed oil-rich, ethnically diverse Kirkuk — inflamed the cri­sis, prompting critics to accuse the KRG of carrying out an expansionist land-grab under the guise of self-determination.

Members of non-Kurdish com­munities in the disputed areas ex­pressed alarm over the prospect of living under an independent Kurd­istan.

It appears that the KRG had mis­read its allies, including Turkey and the United States.

“In the run-up to the referendum, there was no shortage of warnings from the Trump administration that Iraqi Kurds would not enjoy US government support… yet, Kurdish leaders repeatedly told Kurds and Kurdish journalists that the state­ments opposing the referendum were pro forma and that, behind the scenes, they had guarantees of American support,” wrote Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official, on the website of the American En­terprise Institute, a US think-tank. “That was wishful thinking at best and, at worst, an outright lie.”

Turkey announced that it would suspend its training of peshmerga fighters and has instead been in­volved in a joint military exercise with Iraqi government forces.

A year ago, Turkish forces, at the invitation of KRG, helped peshmer­ga fighters recapture Bashiqa from ISIS. At the time, Turkish presence on Iraqi soil was branded by Bagh­dad as an “invasion.”

The referendum has moved Tur­key closer to its regional rival Iran. Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad are mulling sanctions against the KRG and military action — if needed — to keep Iraq from breaking up. Such an alliance would have been unlikely before the referendum.

During a historic visit to Moscow, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be preserved. There has been a warming of ties between Riyadh and Baghdad, amid a wish by some Iraqi politicians to break away from Tehran’s orbit.

Observers said the threat of Kurd­istan seceding would ensure that Iraq remain under greater Iranian influence as Iran would be invited to play a bigger role in the affairs of its neighbour.

Even within KRG-controlled are­as, there has been growing dissatis­faction. Kurdish opposition figures condemned the newly formed body named the “Political Leadership of Kurdistan-Iraq” as a ploy to keep Barzani in power following the KRG presidential and legislative elec­tions scheduled for November 1.