Iraq's Kurds Could Find Leverage With Baghdad in Fighting Sunni Militants


JUNE 19, 2014 | 0421 

Recent moves by the Iraqi and Iranian governments suggest that their Shiite leaders are content to let Kurdish peshmerga forces contain the Sunni militants in northern Iraq, relieving pressure on the Iraqi army and enabling Baghdad to focus on threats closer to home before looking north. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could be willing to bargain for Kurdish military support. Baghdad's dependence on the peshmerga gives the government in Arbil leverage, which the Kurds will likely use to further pressure Baghdad on key issues -- such as recognizing the Kurdish political status in disputed territories and allowing limited Kurdish energy exports.



Even if a short-term compromise is reached, the peshmerga are unlikely to venture far into Sunni Arab-dominated regions. Although the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and its Sunni militant allies have avoided opening a new front against the Kurds, wary of overextending themselves by challenging Iraqi forces and peshmerga simultaneously, the Kurdish forces are well aware of the dangers they would face if they launched operations against the militant group and its supporters. Moreover, any concessions al-Maliki offers to stabilize the security environment will prove to be stopgap measures and must be limited in scale so as not to alienate his remaining support among nationalist Sunni Arabs or hard-liners within his own Shiite camp. The constraints on both sides will prevent anything more than a short-term marriage of convenience, meaning the underlying dispute between Baghdad and Arbil will remain unresolved.




Since the start of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant's offensive across northern Iraq, there have been no major confrontations between Sunni Arab militants and Kurdish peshmerga. Aside from isolated shellings and low-level clashes around Kirkuk, Mosul and Diyala provinces, the Kurdistan Regional Government and its security forces have remained relatively buffered from the recent Sunni Arab uprising in Iraq. The Kurds have proved reluctant to extend beyond their new security cordons on the outer fringes of Iraq's disputed territories, which peshmerga forces were able to occupy quickly following the withdrawal of the Iraqi army. On June 16, the Kurdish Rudaw news agency reported that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant had requested a truce with Kurdish militants based near Tuz Khurmato. The same day, rumors emerged that Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant fighters stationed in militant-occupied Tikrit had freed some 18 Kurdish soldiers -- including three senior officers -- attached to the Iraqi army. With the Kurds content to operate defensively, the Sunni Arab militants seem reluctant to devote meaningful resources against the peshmerga.



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The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has not yet publicly criticized the Kurds' rapid expansion of control to the edges of Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland. Kurdish peshmerga now occupy many cities with strong Arab minorities, including Kirkuk. At the moment, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is devoting its very limited resources to working with an array of Sunni militants to challenge regime forces along the main highways to Baghdad and across Iraq's east-west Sunni Arab belt.


Nevertheless, the militant group's leadership appears aware that any army marching from the north could attack its exposed flank. Drawing the Kurds into a fight would open up a second front and risk encouraging military cooperation between the Kurds and Shia. Thus, the Sunni militants have been extremely cautious to avoid taking any action that could prompt the Kurds to go on the offensive. The militants could also be hoping to persuade the Kurds to maintain the flow of crude from Kirkuk's oil fields -- now under peshmerga protection -- to the Bayji refinery. The Sunni militant group is fighting for control of the refinery to provide fuel and revenue to sustain its campaign.


The leadership in Arbil seems far more interested in consolidating its new control of the disputed territories and establishing solid lines of defense in case Baghdad or militant forces come looking for a fight in the future. The Kurds have more than a decade of experience dealing with Sunni Arab jihadists and are under no illusions about the dangers involved in confronting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, including potential threats to the Kurds' long-sought-after sphere of control. A peshmerga offensive against the Sunni militants would also risk inciting Sunni Arab minorities in the newly peshmerga-occupied cities. For the government in Arbil, there is little to gain by striking out in Sunni Arab-dominated cities and regions beyond the Kurdish security cordons.


The Shiite Leaders' Perspective


Al-Maliki and the Shiite authorities in Baghdad are struggling to regain control of areas across northern Iraq. They likely see the peshmerga as a useful tool for containing the Sunni Arab militants in these regions and preventing the insurgents from moving south to Baghdad and the Shiite heartland. Opening up a second front would also ease the pressure on the Iraqi security forces. Thus, despite Kirkuk's importance for the regime, al-Maliki's inner circle has yet to publicly condemn Kurdish mobilization in the disputed territories, not wishing to press the issue at a time when the peshmerga's assistance could prove useful. In fact, according to Kurdish BasNews, Iraqi National Security Adviser Falah al-Fayyad announced June 16 that Baghdad had approved of the peshmerga's continued presence in the disputed regions, a concession that would have been unthinkable prior to the Sunni uprising.


Tehran has also been pressuring Arbil to mobilize the peshmerga against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. A senior Iranian delegation reportedly arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days to persuade the Kurds to take military action. Given the tense state of the Arbil-Baghdad relationship, Iran could be willing to help the two sides work out a compromise that enables military cooperation in return for key concessions from Baghdad. Only hours after Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani's meeting with Iranian officials, al-Maliki sent a letter via the general commander of the Iraqi army, Babakir Zebari, to Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani reportedly mentioning a "shared solution" to the current security situation.


Arbil's Likely Demands


Arbil will try to ensure that any agreement on peshmerga assistance includes important concessions from Baghdad on outstanding disagreements. In particular, Barzani likely will seek a resolution outlining the future status of the disputed territories, ensuring Arbil's portion of the national oil revenue and formalizing the Kurdish right to export limited crude quantities.


Baghdad's current dependence on Kurdish military cooperation provides the Kurdistan Regional Government with unprecedented leverage that Arbil is unlikely to give up without a major negotiation breakthrough. A peshmerga offensive against Sunni militants in northern Iraq would carry enormous risks, meaning Arbil would expect something major in return. In the meantime, the Kurds have raised the stakes in the negotiations, with an official Kurdistan Regional Government spokesman announcing June 18 that the region now demands a 25 percent share of the country's oil revenue (rather than the 17 percent outlined in the Iraqi Constitution). Arbil also has announced that preparations are underway to load a third tanker of unilaterally piped Kurdish crude, and Turkey continues to claim that the exports are being bought on the international market (although neither of the tankers loaded with Kurdish oil appear to have unloaded their cargo yet). All of these developments increase pressure on Baghdad to reach a temporary settlement.


Signs of an agreement could be emerging in Diyala province, where al-Maliki has sent his newly appointed commander of the region's security forces to Khanaqin -- a disputed Kurdish-majority city in the northeast -- to negotiate military coordination with local peshmerga. In this context, it is notable that al-Fayyad's announcement on June 16 was clear in highlighting that peshmerga are "legal and registered in the list of Iraqi security forces" and that the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government had agreed on their use to bolster Iraqi security and fight the Sunni militants "in the near future." However, a short-term agreement on security cooperation is unlikely to resolve the underlying tensions between Baghdad and Arbil, especially with Kurdish peshmerga occupying key disputed regions and Arbil's recent announcement that it has linked its pipeline export infrastructure to the peshmerga-occupied Kirkuk oil fields.






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