There has been considerable tension between the Kurdistan region and the Iraqi central government, after Kurdistan to hold a referendum on the independence of the region from the Center that caused resentment of Baghdad, which tried with neighboring countries to pressure Kurdistan to cancel the results of the referendum.

Recently, the head of the Kurdistan Region Intelligence Agency warned of major threat facing Kurdistan region and its achievements, following that Kurdistan Region Security Council announced in a tweet late on Wednesday (12 Oct 2017) that messages received indicating that Iraqi forces including the People's Mobilization Forces (PMF) are preparing “major attacks” on Kurdistan. There have been signs of disagreement between the Governments of Baghdad and Erbil over the disputed areas and their administration since 2003. The question on everybody’s mind this time: Will Iraqi government use force to recapture disputed areas? What will be the upcoming scenarios to administer the disputed areas?  

What Are The Disputed Areas?

In short, they are the cities, towns and strategic villages with the absolute Kurdish majority in Kirkuk, Mosul, and Diyala, that form the borders of the southern Kurdistan, which are located along Arab cities and towns. Most of the Iraqi regimes tried to Arabize them and change their reality and their historical and geographical identity by bringing hundreds of thousands of Arab families and their housing instead of the original inhabitants who were displaced and spread during the rule of the Baath, which lasted from 1963 until the fall in 2003. The central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan region has been struggling for years in these areas. The areas which are populated by a mix of nationalities and sects: Majority Kurds and minorities of Arabs, which both Central government and KRG claim administrative rights. 

Constitutional Ways to Solve the Problems

Article (140), is a constitutional article binding in the articles of the Constitution of the Republic of Iraq (2005), which set the federal government a road map to settle the dispute over the disputed areas in Iraq and determine its fate. The Article 140 of the Constitution of the Republic of Iraq defines the disputed areas of Iraq as those that were subjected to demographic change and Arabization policy by the former regime during its rule from 1968 until it’s in 2003. The article includes a mechanism to solve the problems, consisting of three stages: first, normalization, and the treatment of changes in the composition of the population in Kirkuk and disputed areas under the regime of Saddam and after, and the second census in those areas, the latest referendum to determine what the people want, before 31 December 2017.  The Federal Government violated the Constitution, which slowed down and delayed the implementation of the contents of Article (140) of the Constitution and evaded its obligations and did not abide by the timetables of the stages of implementation contained in that article.

The failure to implement Article 140 of the Constitution, and some other federal problems such as do not to spend the share of the region from the federal budget and deprive the Peshmerga forces of their financial dues and problems related to the right to extract and export oil and the oil contracts are all unresolved issues that led to some kind of political break between the two governments.

The military developments that took place after the fall of some Iraqi cities with a Sunni majority by the militants of the Islamic State, and the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from disputed areas after the fall of the city of Mosul, Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered these areas and prevented the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) / Daesh to control them.

The New De Facto in Disputed Areas

Since the attacks of Islamic State to the northern Iraq, most of the disputed areas have controlled by the KRG, while others are under the control of Baghdad. The rise of ISIS caused a great loss for the Kurds but provided an opportunity for Peshmerga forces to restore the bulk of the Kurdistan controlled by the Iraqi authorities and some Iraqi Militias. Therefore, the Peshmerga forces will defend the areas that entered it as it did in the past in defense of Kirkuk and other areas. The federal government has not accepted the existence of the Peshmerga forces in those areas. This led to the KRG to deal with the new de facto disputed areas. During his recent visit to the area, Abadi asked for a gradual withdrawal from the territory liberated by the Peshmerga forces during the battles in Mosul. Predictably, the KRG did not accept this withdrawal and continues to remain militarily in each liberation zone.

On September 25, 2017, the referendum took place in Kurdistan region, as well as disputed areas with Baghdad, including Kirkuk in particular. The referendum caused a crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, after the KRG refused to retreat from the result of the referendum, and the Baghdad government maintained its position that rejects it, it was considered a Prime Minister Haider Abadi, the referendum is An unconstitutional exercise that jeopardizes the security and stability of the country, a procedure whose consequences have no real impact, but have serious negative implications for the region itself.

After the referendum, the federal government rushed to take action against the KRG. On September 26, 2017, the Iraqi prime minister asked the Kurdistan region to hand over its airports to the federal government within three days, with the closure of the airspace as of September 29, 2017. He called on the region to cancel all the result of the referendum on secession. Likewise, the Iraqi parliament issued a number of resolutions against the referendum, most notably the obligation of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (Haider Abadi) to maintain the unity of Iraq by deploying troops in all areas controlled by KRG after 2003. The parliament also voted to re-control the oil fields in Kirkuk.

Obviously, the political parties in Shia National Alliance press on Abadi, to implement the decision of parliament to redeploy the army in the disputed areas as soon as possible. Abadi called on Iraqi military leaders to prepare a comprehensive report on the situation in the northern Iraqi axis before discussing the plan to redeploy the Iraqi federal forces in the disputed areas. The security leaders warned that the current situation is not appropriate to implement this decision, which may push a military clash with Peshmerga forces in those areas and the negative impact on the country.

Future Scenarios 

Some scenarios results in of Kurdish referendum are predictable in the disputed areas, including:

The first option is the entry of the Iraqi army into Kirkuk and the disputed areas under to bring the Peshmerga forces back to the pre-Daesh area. This certainly led to a short tactical military clash between both sides. Currently, with the aim of launching an attack on the city of Kirkuk and the seizure of its oil fields, Iraqi army and militia gather in Taza Khurmatu and al-Bashir village south of Kirkuk. These forces have been preparing for attack the city and began to move around the city. The commander of Unit 70 of Peshmerga forces, Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, on Friday said that the Iraqi army and PMF gave the Kurdish forces two hours to hand over Kirkuk. This is an internal conflict, certainly will concern the United States, but will not push Washington to intervene immediately. Thus, the US to prevent a full-scale eruption of clashes will put a pressure on Erbil and Baghdad to contain the conflict and make an agreement to administer the areas.

This brings us to the second scenario, which is a joint administration of disputed areas until the resolution of Article 140 of the Constitution through a referendum in which people choose to stay with Baghdad or go to Kurdistan. As a way to contain the conflict, Pafel Talabani – Son of Jalal Talabani has offered to dissolve the Kirkuk provincial council, remove its governor if needed, create a joint administration in the areas and enter talks with Baghdad within the framework of the Iraqi constitution.

The third option is less likely to be a full-scale military confrontation. If the Peshmerga refused to allow the Iraqi army to enter those areas and hand over the oil fields to Baghdad, the Iraqi government would have to implement the parliament’s decision to use force, which would lead to the entry of the militia into the crisis line. In this case, the international community will interfere to protect Kurdistan region and prevent of much deteriorating of the security situation in Iraq. From this point, the last scenario will be establishing a buffer zone. Indeed, this needs the UN Security Council (UNSC) approves of draft cease-fire proposal by one of its members to create a security zone and arrival of peacekeeping forces. Similar the buffers reflect the stalemate following Israeli invasions of Lebanon aimed at eliminating cross-border attacks by guerrillas. In this case, the UNSC should help Erbil and Baghdad to revisit Article 140, the transitional provision of the Iraqi Constitution that mandates the normalization, census, and referendum processes that must occur to determine the future status of each disputed territory. This will resolve whether the territories will become part of the KRG or will remain within the Baghdad’s system of governorates.

In sum, the military conflict in the disputed areas is highly expected than before. The United States certainly protect the Kurdistan region, but no guarantee has made in disputed areas. Several scenarios for the future of disputed areas are expected, including the establishment of a buffer zone in these areas between KRG and Baghdad.  

Farhad H. Abdullah

Farhad H. Aabdullah obtained his MA in Strategic and Defense Studies at Malaya University in Malaysia. Farhad is currently a lecturer at the University of Sulaimani, Faculty of Law and Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations. He has published policy papers in Modern Diplomacy, Masher Politics & Culture, Journal, and Foreign Policy News. He is a Strategic expert and observer on Kurdish affairs.

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