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Containing the Kirkuk Crisis

The following recommendations are from BPC’s Task Force on Managing Disorder in the Middle East.

On October 16, Iraqi government forces took control of the contested city of Kirkuk ? and its oil fields ? as Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from positions they had held since 2014. The loss of Kirkuk, sometimes described as the Kurds’ Jerusalem, brought a dramatic end to the enthusiasm aroused by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 25 independence referendum. Where just weeks ago Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani anticipated negotiating an exhilarating new era in Kurdish history, now, amidst mutual recriminations, he is calling on Kurds to avoid turning against each other. Barzani’s supporters are accusing politicians affiliated with his rival, the late Jalal Talabani, of selling out Kirkuk by reaching a secret deal with Baghdad. Barzani’s critics, in turn, argue that by pushing prematurely for a referendum with an eye to his own political interests, Barzani brought the current crisis upon himself. As a result there is a real chance that Kurdish politics will revert to the internecine fighting that wracked northern Iraq in the 1990s.

For Washington, which helped manage a successful campaign in which Kurdish and Iraqi forces worked together to drive ISIS out of Mosul, developments in Kirkuk represent a dangerous setback. With Kurdish and Iraqi forces turning on each other, and the possibility that Kurdish forces will do the same, ISIS, badly bloodied, may have more room to maneuver. While the U.S. government pressured Barzani to cancel his proposed independence referendum in return for subsequent support in negotiating with Baghdad, it failed to convince him. As a result, Washington found itself in the awkward position of joining with Iran in tacitly supporting Iraqi moves in Kirkuk at Barzani’s expense. Now, a key U.S. partner has suffered an embarrassing defeat, putting at risk one of the few islands of relative stability in a shattered region.

On the positive side, Baghdad’s victory will help bolster the political fortunes of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi against more pro-Iranian challengers in upcoming elections. Yet the role played by Iran in this victory, including allegations that Iranian General Qassim Suleimani negotiated the withdrawal of Peshmerga units from the city, also makes Kirkuk another troubling example of Tehran’s growing influence. Certainly Iran has been eager to present it this way, undertaking an extensive social media campaign to hype (perhaps unjustifiably) the role Iranian-backed Shiite militias and commanders played in the Kirkuk operation.

Following on the recent capture of Raqqa in Syria and coming on the heels of President Trump’s announcement of a new plan for confronting Iran’s growing power in the Middle East, the crisis in Kurdistan risks significantly disrupting U.S. policy. Before the situation gets even worse, here are four steps that Washington can take to help stabilize it:

  •  Keep the focus on Iran and ISIS, not feuding among allies. In order to keep the focus where it belongs, Washington must do everything within its power to manage the conflict between the KRG and Baghdad, as well as between Kurdish factions. In the 1990s, U.S. intervention was crucial in resolving the intra-Kurdish civil war between the Barzani and Talabani factions. Washington must be prepared to play this role again, recognizing that maintaining Kurdish unity will make it easier to restore a functional relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad.
  • Express firm support for the integrity of the KRG within its constitutional borders. With former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki demanding that Iraqi troops march on the KRG capital of Irbil, Washington should articulate its commitment to the security of the Kurdistan Regional Government within the three provinces allocated to it in the Iraqi constitution and affirm unwavering opposition to the use of violence to resolve intra-Iraqi disagreements. Washington should also reaffirm its commitment to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution (regarding a referendum on the status of the disputed territories) as the only means for resolving Iraq’s internal border disputes and emphatically call for the withdrawal of all PMF militias from all the disputed territories.

The loss of Kirkuk brought a dramatic end to the enthusiasm aroused by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 25 independence referendum.

  •  Work with the KRG, Baghdad and possibly Ankara on an equitable regime for all oil exports and distribution of oil income. The KRG’s right to export oil and the distribution of oil revenues have been among the biggest factors in Iraqi-Kurdish tensions since 2003. Previous efforts to negotiate an equitable oil regime left both sides dissatisfied, leading to the current conflict over physical control of the Kirkuk oilfields. Renewed negotiations on this subject will be difficult, but to the extent Washington can facilitate them they will also be crucial to securing sustainable political arrangements for disputed territories.
  • Quietly make clear to Baghdad that the United States wants a long-term military presence in Iraq, but if blocked will focus on securing a presence in the KRG. U.S. support for Abadi in his recent confrontation with Barzani reveals Washington’s strategic focus on preventing full Iranian control of Iraq even if it comes at the expense of ties to the Kurds. Washington should make the implications of this strategy clear to Baghdad. If Abadi works to chart an independent course and provides the support that the United States needs to pursue military training and counter-terror operations in Iraq, Washington will continue to maintain strong ties with Baghdad. Absent this, however, a decisive turn toward Barzani and the KRG will become the surest route for securing U.S. interests in the region.
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