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Tension on the Trigger-Line

Commentary, 26 November 2012
Middle East and North Africa
As the eyes of the world are focused on Israel and Gaza, tension in northern Iraq between the Kurdish regional government and the Maliki administration has been mounting. Any violence between the two factions would be a disaster for Iraq.

As the eyes of the world are focused on Israel and Gaza, tension in northern Iraq between the Kurdish regional government and the Maliki administration has been mounting. Any violence between the two factions would be a disaster for Iraq.

Maliki and Barzani 

The disputed territories of Iraq, a broad expanse of northern Iraqi territory that the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) seeks to include within its autonomous region has remained relatively quiet over the last year. With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki focused upon out-manoeuvring his Sunni political opponents in Baghdad, and seeking to remain ahead of potential Shia challengers, the relative importance of the Kurds' demands over the disputed territories became subordinated to these other concerns.

Regional Ambitions, Capital Concerns

KRG President Massoud Barzani was also focused on other matters, not least the advancement of the Erbil[1]-Ankara alliance (which also benefited from Maliki's struggle with the Sunni-dominated Iraqiyya coalition) and the furthering of the KRG's independent oil and gas sector activities. Some of the world's major international oil companies (IOCs) have signed exploration and production contracts with Erbil, much to the consternation of Baghdad. But, over recent months, the status of the disputed territories has returned as a key issue in the politics of Iraq. Recent developments have raised the spectre of conflict between the determined and numerous forces of the Kurdistan Region (the peshmerga[2]) that answer only to the Kurdish leadership, and the increasingly organised and well-equipped Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), now very much loyal to Prime Minister Maliki.  

At first sight, Tuz Khurmatu would not be at the top of the list of potential flashpoints in the disputed territories. Although ethnically mixed, with populations of Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, the rather desolate town sits only 170km north of Baghdad, and lies in the southernmost part of the areas claimed by the Kurds. Most of the significant oil-related activities in the disputed territories are located further to the north, around Kirkuk and across Kurdish-controlled territory. The other area of major concern in the disputed territories - the Ninevah governorate and around Mosul - is also far removed from the backwater of Tuz Khurmatu.

However, seemingly innocuous events in Tuz, which appear to have started following a dispute over payment at a petrol station, have threatened to pitch the peshmerga and ISF against each other. Kurdish guards became involved in the dispute, a fire fight followed in which a passing tractor-driver was killed and the ISF attempted to search a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official's house.  

Tension between Erbil and Baghdad have been increasing in the disputed territories over recent months. Following a failed attempt in June to organise a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Maliki, which was pushed hard by President Barzani, relations between the two leaders - never good to start with - became notably frosty. The deployment of ISF units (from Nassiryya) to the disputed territories, in Zummar and Shengal, was then blocked by the KRG deployment of peshmerga units - a move which infuriated Maliki who accused the Kurdish leadership of 'violating the constitution'.

Economic Emancipation

Underpinning these actions have been the Kurds' move towards consolidating their hydrocarbon sector independently of Baghdad - including the construction of pipelines to Dohuk, in close proximity to the Turkish border, and the signing of contracts with Exxon Mobil, Total, Gazprom, and Chevron. They have also sometimes allowed operations in areas very close to, if not actually in, the disputed territories. These moves - deemed to be constitutionally acceptable by the KRG - have served as a perennial impediment to close relations between Erbil and Baghdad over several years. The Kurds view their strategy of bringing the world's most significant IOCs to their region, as creating an unassailable economic reality that will allow the KRG to circumvent political obstacles put in their way by Baghdad. It remains, however, a high-risk game to play with as determined an opponent as Maliki and his deputy Hussein al-Shahristani - himself a vociferous opponent of Kurdish actions.

Making matters even worse was the establishment of the ISF Tigris Operational Command, west of Kirkuk. This brought together two ISF divisions under the command of Lt Gen Abdulamir Zaidi - a figure accused by the Kurds of being involved in the genocidal Anfal campaign committed against them by the Ba'ath regime in the late 1980s - and has been met by Kurdish leaders from all parties with unified opposition. Seeing the development as being nothing less than directly threatening the very existence of the Kurdistan Region itself, President Barzani has maintained the peshmerga on its highest level of alert over the last month. It was therefore very possible that the smallest altercation, in any part of the disputed territories could quite easily escalate into a major confrontation between two forces loyal to two leaders who are locked in a zero-sum struggle.

As of 25 November, reports indicate that a sizeable military formation has been dispatched from Baghdad and is heading north, and with ISF units being reinforced across the disputed territories - including north of Kirkuk City, facing the Kurdistan Region. The peshmerga are also being strengthened, drawing upon their 200,000 strong number, and deploying their tanks and artillery pieces, in addition to scattering themselves around Tuz Khurmato and its environs in preparation for engagement with their Iraqi counterparts. With both sides militarily capable, heavily-armed, and seemingly relishing the prospect of bloodying their opponents, the chances of the KRG and Government of Iraq coming to blows are higher than at any time in the recent past. Politically, this would be disastrous for Iraq and, with Erbil now so closely partnered with Ankara politically and economically, could very easily have wider regional ramifications. If this outcome is once again avoided, expect to see Barzani and Maliki focus heavily on the status of the disputed territories in the run-up to Iraq's national elections in 2014, while seeing the international community attempt to shore up the fragile political compact that maintains the shaky territorial integrity of Iraq.

[1] Capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and the fourth largest city in Iraq.

[2] Literal translation is 'those who face death'.

Author

Gareth Stansfield
Senior Associate Fellow

Professor Gareth Stansfield is a Senior Associate Fellow with special reference to the Middle East and Islamic world. He is professor of... read more

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