As the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has announced victory on the independence referendum from Iraq, there is heightened risk of military escalation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces and militias in contested areas, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and the city of Taz Khurmatu in neighboring Salahuddin province. Those come against the backdrop of escalating national and regional tensions over the vote.
While the referendum vote is non-binding, senior KRG officials say it provides a mandate for eventual separation. A particularly contentious issue is the status of disputed areas. Kurdish forced expanded into Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and Ninevah provinces in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled in face of the Islamic State’s onslaught. The KRG has laid claim to those areas as historically Kurdish lands that were taken away from Kurds during the Baathists’ decades-long Arabization policies beginning in the late 1960s. The Arab and Turkmen populations in the area, who have armed groups, feel uneasy about Kurdish forces and suspect a takeover.
Iranian-backed Shiite-Iraqi militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have also set up positions in contested areas including Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk for some time. The PMF recruits from those areas and has a distinct Turkmen unit. PMF militias sought to project themselves as protectors of Iraqi territorial sovereignty. Previously, there have been a number of small-scale clashes in the disputed territories.
For the past several weeks, Tehran, Baghdad, Ankara and Iraqi-Shiite militias have warned the KRG over holding a referendum, particularly in Kirkuk. Tehran fears the domino effects of Kurdish referendum into its own Kurdish population, as well as the prospect of an Israeli-allied state right by its border. It and Ankara have (briefly) set aside their differences to coordinate on deterring the KRG’s separation.
This past month, Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani has been reportedly met top Kurdish officials to dissuade them from voting, warning that he would not prevent PMF militias from taking action, according to Kurdish officials who spoke with Al Monitor.
Last week, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the US-designated terrorist and the PMF operations commander, met with PMF leaders in Kirkuk. The media reported a clash between the Kurdish peshmerga and a PMF unit, though it was not immediately clear which one. In Tuz Khurmatu, the Tehran-backed Badr Organization, Asaib Ahl al Haq and Khorasani Brigades showcased their forces.
Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces and allies this week launched a new offensive against the Islamic State in the Hawijah district of Kirkuk.
Baghdad and the Erbil are taking hardlines on the disputed areas of Kirkuk and Tuz Khuramatu. On Sept. 24, the Kurdish peshmerga announced it is fully prepared to defend Kirkuk “without discrimination” if “terrorists infiltrate the city.” Reuters reported that a senior Badr Organization leader had reaffirmed to the outlet that the group would prevent Kurdish authorities from holding referendum ballots in Tuz Khurmatu’s Shiite-Turkmen areas, accusing them of seeking to “seize the disputed areas.”
The following day, Harakat al Nujaba – whose leader Akram al Kabi was in Iran this past Friday attending a funeral ceremony with Soleimani – issued a statement calling Kirkuk an “occupied” province and declared readiness for “liberating the area.” The group’s spokesman added that “Iraq’s commander-in-chief must direct the operation to liberate occupied areas toward oil fields and prevent Kurdish militias from stealing the Iraqi nation’s wealth.”
On the day of the referandum, footage circulated of columns of Asaib Ahl al Haq deploying forces to Kirkuk, bolstering the PMF there. And the Badr Organization reported that its affiliated 23rd Brigade of the PMF deployed significant numbers of its forces to Tuz Khurmatu to “observe” the security situation.
Iran and Turkey, meanwhile, held military drills by their areas bordering the KRG. Turkey has threatened to cut off all of KRG’s oil and trade pipelines that run through its territory, and its future steps will depend on whether Erbil will acquiesce to its extortion. Washington has expressed its “deep disappointment” over the vote and the idea that it is held in contested areas.
Baghdad is united in opposing a Kurdish referendum. Prime Minister Hayder al Abadi Abadi has demanded KRG authorities to nullify the vote give the central government control of airports. Yesterday, he met with Asaib Ahl al Haq chief Qais Khazali to discuss government response, highlighting how the KRG referendum has brought rivals together – temporarily.
Today, the Iraqi Parliament authorized Abadi to use military force in Kirkuk. The Hezbollah Brigades’ spokesman has excoriated KRG president Massoud Barzani as a “traitor,” accusing him of using forces to try and control Kirkuk and of selling oil “illegally.” He reaffirmed that the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” is “united” and operates within “a clear strategic framework.” Echoing these calls, the secretary general of the Seyyed al Shuhada Brigades, Abu Ala al Walaei, told the media that “we will prevent Israel getting closer to Iraq through establishing a Kurd government,” going as far as claiming as “the goal of entering DAESH [the Islamic State] to Iraq was to hold this referendum.” He claimed that a Kurdish government would trigger a “50-year war” in the region.
An Iraqi armed forces delegation is to travel to Iran to coordinate military efforts against the referendum, according to Iraqi media.
The KRG’s defiant referendum has sent shockwaves throughout the region. The bitter disputes over contested areas – especially the Kirkuk oil fields – set the stage for future conflict. Iranian-allied Shiite figures and militias will continue to play key roles and will try to position themselves as protectors of a sovereign and independent Iraq. Soleimani, who also failed to prevent the vote, will look to assert his influence. And as Iraq is expected to hold provincial and parliamentary elections in the next year, Soleimani and his men will meanwhile work to leverage the Kurdish independence to undermine their rivals, particularly Abadi.
Amir Toumaj is a Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal.