Posted on September 15, 2016 by Editorial Staff in 1 Top News, Military, Politics, Security
Kurdish Peshmerga military vehicles southeast of Mosul. Photo: Reuters
SULAIMANI, Iraq’s Kurdistan region,— Iraqi Kurds have pushed forward with renewed vigor to retake land from Islamic State in recent weeks, territory that could be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations they are seeking to achieve more autonomy or even independence.
Iraqi territory under Kurdish control has expanded by about 50% in the past two years. Since last month, Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of a number of villages near Mosul and some strategic access points leading into the city. The offensive came as Iraqi forces and their allies gear up for a massive operation in coming weeks to retake the extremist group’s last stronghold in the country.
The maneuvering has angered Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has warned the Kurds not to push further into Mosul on their own, saying the city’s Sunni Arab majority population could resist a Kurdish incursion. The U.S., though, has stressed that its priority is defeating Islamic State and that politics are secondary and are up to Iraqis to sort out.
“It is their decision to make and their process to develop,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Wednesday in Baghdad.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has signaled he is willing to cooperate for now. But some Iraqi Kurds are calling for talks that would partition Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, and allow territories the Kurds have seized to vote on whether they want to join Kurdistan.
“There are several proposals on the table, but it is not yet proper to discuss them,” Mr. Barzani told France 24 in an interview last week.
Such demands underscore the challenges Iraq faces in remaining a unified country: With Islamic State militants in Iraq near defeat, the various forces and ethnic groups fighting them may no longer have a common enemy to unite against.
Antagonizing powerful allies is just the latest risk the Kurds have taken to further their ambitions of independence. Like their brethren across the border in Syria, Iraqi Kurds have used the war against Islamic State to burnish their credentials with the West as one of the most effective ground partners capable of defeating the militants.
Recent events in Syria reminded the Iraqi Kurds how quickly support can be pulled away by neighboring countries and superpowers: The U.S. acquiesced last month to a Turkish military incursion to push back U.S.-supported Syrian Kurds. Their military prowess against Islamic State had allowed them to advance beyond the Euphrates River, a boundary set to avoid provoking Ankara, which accuses the group of supporting terrorism in Turkey.
Some analysts warn Iraqi Kurds could easily face a reversal of fortune if neighbors like Turkey and Iran, or fellow countrymen in Iraq, decide the ethnic group’s designs to carve out its own self-governed territories threaten the larger countries’ fortunes and Western powers agree.
“After Mosul, Western powers will again focus on the integrity of Iraq,” said Gareth Stansfield, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter. The Kurds “think they’re partners in the fight against ISIS when they’re really proxies.”
For decades, the rebellious Kurds have administered a semiautonomous state in northern Iraq. Since the writing of a new constitution two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Kurds have repeatedly complained that the government didn’t enforce clauses meant to give them more control over oil production and more funds to pay Peshmerga, and to allow territories they consider to be Kurdish but fall outside Iraqi Kurdistan’s boundaries to vote on whether to join the state.
“The idea of independence is not a hidden agenda,” said Safeen Dizayee, the spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government. “The Kurds can’t wait another dozen years to see if the constitution is going to be implemented.”
The Peshmerga sometimes coordinate with the central government in fighting Islamic State but always prefer to rely on the help of U.S.-led coalition air support. After their recent push to take more territory, the Kurds have throttled back and agreed to cooperate with the central government.
The Kurdish leader, Mr. Barzani, and Prime Minister Abadi appear to have reached a detente in recent weeks. A senior Kurdish lawmaker, Mullah Bakhtiar, recently announced Mr. Abadi told him that after Mosul is retaken the government is willing to discuss Kurdish independence, although Mr. Abadi hasn’t commented on the matter.
The government hasn’t publicly agreed to hold negotiations with the Kurds.
Mr. Barzani has agreed to work with the federal government from now on. But he has also proclaimed that lands taken with Kurdish blood will be kept by Kurds.
At a news conference in Baghdad on Aug. 31, Mr. Abadi cautioned the Kurds of overreaching, after being asked if the Peshmerga had taken land to drive a hard bargain.
“Whether you can get advantage from areas you have liberated is one thing. But whether you can live in peace with those sectors of society is another issue,” he said.
Mr. Barzani’s territorial advances and talk of independence could be nothing more than a way to extract more concessions from the Iraqi government, whether that is a greater share of oil revenue or the ability to permanently add recently taken territory to Kurdistan.
“Barzani is trying to bluff and scare the central authorities,” said Hunain al-Qadu, a member of parliament from Nineveh province. “Mr. Barzani is trying to exploit an opportunity. Trying to advance his objectives and his strategy.”
Saed Kakei, a senior adviser to the Kurdish government’s minister of Peshmerga, said the Kurdish presence in these captured lands is a moral responsibility to repel Islamic State and is supported by Kurdistan’s population of eight million.
But he acknowledged that the territories taken from Islamic State could also help the Kurds obtain more favorable terms in talks with the government. Asked if the territory can be used at the bargaining table later, he simply replied: “Yes.”