Iraq launches anti-ISIS offensive amid Kurdish referendum tensions
London- Iraqi forces resumed their military campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Anbar and Kirkuk provinces amid tensions in the country over a decision by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to call a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.
Iraqi forces moved towards the ISIS-held town of Ana in Anbar on September 19 with the aim of pushing westward until reaching al- Qa’im on the border with Syria. The plan, as announced by the country’s military office, was to start with the ISIS-held city of Hawija in disputed Kirkuk province on September 22. The military offensive against ISIS in Hawija started one day earlier, with heavy shelling around the nearby ISIS-held town of Sharqat.
Contrary to earlier Iraqi media reports, Kurdish peshmerga fighters were not to participate in the battle to recapture Hawija. Only Iraqi special forces and Shia militias under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) were to take part. The peshmerga will nevertheless stand guard to prevent ISIS militants from escaping from the north-eastern side of Hawija.
Up to 85,000 people could be displaced from Hawija, the United Nations said. Save the Children, an international NGO, warned that up to 30,000 children are in extreme danger.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said he expected the recapture of Hawija to be swift but the exclusion of peshmerga forces in the offensive highlighted tensions between Baghdad and KRG President Masoud Barzani over the Kurdistan referendum.
Abadi warned that Iraqi forces were prepared to intervene militarily if the referendum were to result in violence.
“If you challenge the constitution and if you challenge the borders of Iraq and the borders of the region, this is a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well, which is a very dangerous escalation,” Abadi told the Associated Press.
The Federal Supreme Court of Iraq, which is responsible for settling disputes between the central government and regional authorities, ordered the KRG to suspend the referendum.
In addition to the areas recognised as part of Kurdistan — the provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya — the KRG also wants to have the referendum in areas that were under government control but are now held by peshmerga, which cleared ISIS from them.
It is those areas that are most likely to cause friction. One Kurdish man was killed in clashes with Turkmen in the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. The question of who is to blame for the violence is disputed.
Several PMF leaders warned they would not allow the disputed areas to break away from Iraq. In an interview with the BBC, Barzani said Kurds were ready to defend Kirkuk should other forces enter it.
The risk of civil war has alarmed much of the international community, including Iraqi neighbours Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which called on Barzani to suspend the referendum.
The United States said it “strongly opposes” the referendum. “All of Iraq’s neighbours, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose this referendum,” read a statement by US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. “The costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds.”
Israel is one of the few countries to have publicly backed the referendum, a fact that does not serve the KRG’s interests given public sentiment in the region.
Kurdish officials said they have yet to receive a worthwhile offer from Baghdad and stressed the referendum would not automatically lead to seceding from the country.
“Motivations for holding the referendum have more to do with internal Kurdish politics and longer-term relations with Baghdad than with immediate national Kurdish aspirations,” wrote Maria Fantappie, a senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. “By adopting an assertive nationalist stance, they hope to silence dissent and force opponents to fall in line.”
The consequences of the referendum, however, are expected to be felt in all of Iraq. “Deteriorating relations between Erbil and Baghdad almost certainly would strengthen the Iran-affiliated Shia factions at Abadi’s and his government’s expense,” wrote Fantappie.
Despite its apparent popularity in Erbil, the referendum bid does not appear very promising for Iraqi Kurds.
“Kurdistan is far from ready for statehood. The government is steeped in debt; its coffers are empty. The peshmerga, its vaunted fighting force, is split between multiple family-led factions. Mr Barzani, for his part, has made a mockery of the political system,” wrote the Economist. “Many Kurds, for now at least, would prefer that their leaders focus on improving Kurdistan, rather than seceding.”