Despite the opposition of the central government in Baghdad, Kurdish political parties agreed to hold a referendum in the region on September 25th, 2017. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said that the referendum includes disputed areas, such as oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is claimed by the Kurds and Baghdad.
Unquestionably, there will be some serious security and military threats that the KRG will not able to handle on their own. This piece details the security threats (in classical term military threats). So, the question in everybody’s mind these days is what will be the military threats to Iraqi Kurdistan if the region announces its independence?
MPF and Independent Kurdistan
Iran is pursuing a policy of strengthening its influence and interests in other countries, relying on non-governmental actors after the success of the Hezbollah support experiment, which is now in control of the Lebanese decisions. This type of dependence on governmental and non-governmental organizations are prevalent in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, where Iran officially supports groups such as Ansar Allah led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, which seized control of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in late September 2014, and dozens of Iraqi militias active in both Syria and Iraq, such as Asaib Ah Al-Badr, Saraya al-Kharasani, and other Shiite groups operating under the cover of the People’s Mobilization Forces (MPF). Most of the Shiite militias and factions were formed by local volunteers under the PMF. Even though the Iraqi Parliament acknowledged PMF as a legal force, Abadi is too weak to take on the militias directly.
The MPF objective encompasses eliminating terrorism in Iraq and in the region, to protecting the regime and the political process in Iraq, as per Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who is the deputy chairman of MPF Committee. Shia militants are concerned with protecting the regime and the political process, which is an uncharted territory for the PMF. It is an explicit declaration of the possibility of turning it into a sensitive and dangerous situation. The PMF are a great danger, but their threat is limited to certain (disputed) areas. These militants have fought to turn Iraq into a Shiite state that answer to the mullahs in Tehran. The next battle for Iraqi Shiite forces is to guarantee the territorial integrity of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, so that Iran (and its allies) can move unhindered throughout these regions. The partition of Iraq is the redline for Tehran, and in the case of a referendum and declaration of independence of northern Iraq, the PMF will be mobilized against the KRG. Some believes that the threat of war by the MPF against KRG arises not from the referendum, but from the disputed areas will be included in the upcoming referendum. Nonetheless, several indicators show that PMF will fuel the sectarian situation already present in Iraqi society, and will increase its division, which will inevitably lead to a new civil war and security threats aimed at the Kurdish entity. The war already took place in the disputed areas (Tuz Khurmatu) between Kurdish forces and MPF, after intervention in those areas by Peshmarga forces.
Arming Minorities in Disputed Areas
The Iraqi parliament voted earlier in favor of the PMF as an official formation and part of the Iraqi armed forces, authorizing them to enter any part of the country to liberate them from terrorist gangs, maintain security in other areas, and defend it against any potential threat. This grants them the flexibility to move into areas that are under the control of the Iraqi army prior to the arrival of ISIS, particularly the disputed areas between the Baghdad and Erbil. It is expected that the MPF would encircle the borders of the Kurdish Region via the exploitation and arming of minorities, particularly Shia Turkmen, who have sought PMF patronage to increase their local autonomy. It is very vital that the road be closed for the plan to work.
Tensions between the Shiite popular crowd and the Kurdish peshmerga already reached unprecedented levels. Clashes erupted in Tuz Kurmatu after the attack on the headquarters of the Peshmerga forces in town, resulting in casualties on both sides. Some factions of the PMF are also arming the tribes of Tuz Khurmato following recent security developments, which began to widen through the mutual targeting of the Peshmerga and civilians. The PMF in the Tuz will not stay long, but arming the tribes will prevent the Peshmerga from coming back to Tuz to create tensions.
Tensions between Shiite militias and Kurds is not only prevalent in Tuz Khirramato district south of Kirkuk, but the crowd is also taking advantage of the battle of Mosul and use it as a cover to approach the borders of the Kurdistan region, as per their earlier threats. Recently, there was a warning that an armed conflict might erupt between both sides over disagreements on the security of the Sinjar area in Nineveh province. The crowd entering Sinjar, west of Mosul, could very well lead to a war. The leader of the PMF, Jawad Talibawi, already launched an attack on the Peshmerga, and explained that removing them from Nineveh will be easier than expelling ISIS. He also called for the need to subject the entire territory of Iraq to the control of the state, threatening to use force against the Peshmerga in the event of “non-compliance” to the orders of Abadi. Recently, dozens of Yazidis Peshmerga, including military officials who left their ranks and joined the PMF, said that they expect the MPF to help the Yezidis return to their areas and provide the necessary assistance because they are Iraqi forces, and we must respect them as we respect any other fighting force.
Recruiting Kurdish Citizen
The economic situation that the region is going through due to its reduced budget from the central government in Baghdad and the drop in oil prices resulted in increased unemployment; which provided a good environment for PMF to attract the people of the region to join its ranks and promote its agenda, which differs from the one espoused by Baghdad. Those who register will receive 1,100,000 Iraqi dinars per month, and if they have families, they will earn 250,000 dinars more, and if killed, will be considered martyrs, and their families will be granted 15 million Iraqi dinars and a piece of land. Mohammed al-Bayati, the official of the northern section of the PMF, admitted that “a small number” of the region’s citizens and figures had joined them. Some were told that they could form military regiments. Al-Bayati also pointed out that “The Kurds who join the popular mobilization are deployed on the border line of the disputed areas of Kirkuk and Khanaqin because we need them there”. The registration of volunteers from the Kurdistan region into the ranks of the PMF in the Kurdistan region is reminiscent of the previous regime, which used volunteers to fight Kurdish forces.
In addition, the Iraqi government can further threaten the Kurdish region by preventing the passage of arms, weapons, and ammunition to the KGR, and especially to those partaking in the international coalition against ISIS. Even the United States does not prefer to send direct military assistance to the KRG. The central government may try to sign a security agreement with neighboring countries (Iran and Turkey) to allow for the direct intervention in Iraq through their respective military forces, and the establishment of bases in northern Iraq. Baghdad has been unable to control the regions bordering both countries. On July 23rd, 2017, Iran and Iraq signed a military agreement to step up military cooperation, which also includes border security, logistical, and training support. Despite their disputes, the Iraqi government will take a parallel step with Turkey to militarily contain Iraqi Kurdistan.
In terms of difficulties of referendum, the most prominent is the rejection of the Shiites and Sunnis for independence of the region. The public opinions of Iraqi Arabs (Shiites and Sunnis) have rejected the partition of the country; they have not even welcome federalism. The disputed areas are inhabited by a mixture of Sunnis Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds. The Arab (even Turkmen) nationalist could probably form semi-military organizations to fight Kurdish forces, compelling the Kurds to leave, even abducting and killing them in areas beyond the control of KRG. For instance; after announcing holding referendum in September 2017, the citizens of the Failli Kurds are currently being exposed to various types of threats of killing, displacement, and looting in some areas.
Externally, the military threats are as serious internally as it is externally. The neighboring countries will expose military threats to the Kurdistan region. Iranian and Turkish planes and artillery have constantly bombed border villages in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, targeting elements and positions of PJAK and PKK, YPG, and SDF in northern Iraq, including Sinjar.
The neighboring countries – particularly Iran; might try to create and bring Jihadist to border regions between Kurdistan and Iran in order to destabilize the region. Ansar al-Islam fi Kurdistan (Jund al-Islam) bases were in and around the villages of Biyara and Tawela, which lied northeast of the town of Halabja in the Hawraman region of Sulaimaniya province bordering Iran. The PUK claims that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters joined Ansar Al-Islam in Iraq after 9/11 attacks, with as many as 57 “Arab Afghan” fighters entering Kurdistan via Iran. Taken together with credible reports of the return of some Ansar al-Islam fighters to Iraqi Kurdistan through Iran suggest that these fighters have received at least limited support from Iranian sources. It is therefore not surprising that the Iranian government is repeating their previous endeavor when dealing with the Kurdish state. Similarly, Turkey might use Turkmen in Kirkuk and other areas to destabilize the security situation in the Kurdistan region and disputed areas by arming and mobilizing them.