The US administration between Iraq and a hard place
The recent offensive by Iraqi troops to take the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk and its oil fields put the United States in a difficult situation, as it has been allied with both the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
US policy has been to support the central government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shia politician who is considered more moderate and inclusive than his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki. At the same time, the United States has worked closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for several decades.
Militarily, the United States has trained both the Iraqi Army and the peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish militia. Both forces have fought successfully against the Islamic State (ISIS) over the past couple of years but, with ISIS in retreat and with the Kurdish independence referendum having caused so much controversy within Iraq, the two military forces have now set their sights on each other.
Complicating matters is that the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a mostly Shia group whose subcomponents often take orders from Iran, have also mobilised to move into the Kirkuk area.
Although the peshmerga, under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Masoud Barzani, called on all Iraqi Kurds to “resist and defeat the attackers,” it appears that the peshmerga under the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a rival group that shared power in an uneasy alliance with the KDP, made a deal with the Iraqi central government to allow Iraqi troops to move into Kirkuk without much resistance. This heightened tensions within the Kurdish region of Iraq as well as dissatisfaction among many Kurds, particularly those living in Kirkuk, who say the political leadership abandoned them.
The Pentagon, upset that its two main allies in Iraq were in conflict, issued a statement during the initial fighting calling on both to avoid escalating actions that could detract from the fight against ISIS. It has active forces in western Iraq along the Syrian border.
Nonetheless, US leverage seems to be limited. The United States failed to compel the KRG from having the independence referendum despite many warnings, and Abadi under pressure from other Iraqi politicians, such as Maliki, to demonstrate toughness, went ahead with a military offensive.
While Abadi is grateful that the United States helped to retrain the Iraqi Army after its dismal performance against ISIS in 2014 and US air strikes assisted Iraqi Army and special forces in taking the fight to ISIS, US largesse is not what it used to be.
For all of his talk against ISIS, US President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget for Iraq includes less than $1 billion from all accounts to help the beleaguered Iraqi economy. It has paid a heavy price in the ISIS conflict. Abadi not only faces large budget deficits (approximately $20 billion a year) because of low oil prices, high government expenditures on civil services salaries and high defence spending, he has to deal with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees from the ISIS conflict as well as the enormous task of rebuilding the heavily damaged cities such as Mosul that will cost in the tens of billions of dollars.
Trump and his team apparently believe that they can assist Abadi on the cheap or rely on the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs to foot the bill. They are likely to be disappointed on both accounts. This means Abadi will likely chart his own course.
Although Kirkuk is back in Iraqi government hands, the issue could erupt again. The city lies just outside the boundaries of the KRG and its final disposition (to become part of the KRG or remain outside it) was supposed to have been settled by a referendum of the city’s inhabitants in 2007. However, the issue was so controversial — the Kurds claimed that Saddam Hussein moved in thousands of ethnic Arabs over the years to change the city’s character while the Arabs and Turkmen of the city say they want to be under the Iraqi central state — that the plebiscite was delayed many times. Then, in the summer of 2014 when ISIS was occupying part of northern Iraq and the Iraqi Army collapsed, the Kurds seized Kirkuk and made it part of the KRG.
Kirkuk has both symbolic and economic value for the Kurds. They have often referred to the city as their “Jerusalem” for historic and nationalistic reasons. The city and its environs have long held substantial oil resources, which the Kurds were able to take since 2014 when they incorporated Kirkuk into the KRG and withheld these oil revenues from Baghdad when the Iraqi central government helped up the sharing of government revenues to the Kurds.
Abadi, therefore, needed to show, for his own political standing that he will no longer tolerate the Kurds keeping Kirkuk. At the same time, he knows the military offensive that reclaimed Kirkuk has bred a great of resentment among the Kurds and could explode into violence. For this reason, he has called for dialogue between the central government and the KRG.
So where is the United States in this conflict? Initially, it took a neutral stand between the Iraqi government and the KRG, which many Kurdish nationalists took as an abandonment of their cause. Now the United States simply hopes that, with the situation “settled” in that the 2014 borders between the Iraqi central government and the KRG have been re-established, the issue will go away. However, it behoves Washington to mediate this dispute diplomatically otherwise Kirkuk could become a violent flash point very soon.