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Jan 3, 2019 | 23:28 GMT

4 mins read

Iraq: What a Kurdish Military Return to Kirkuk Means for the Province

The Big Picture

Iraq's status as one of the world's top oil producers, its persistent problems with jihadist militants, and its geographic location between Middle Eastern powers make it geopolitically important. The Iraqi Kurds, who predominantly reside in their own semi-autonomous region in the country's north, are stakeholders in all of these issues. As Kurdish officials continue to work through their disagreements with Iraq's federal government and each other, the outcomes of their power struggles will directly impact Iraq's stability and security. And thanks to the country's contribution to oil markets, Iraq's internal struggles and the relationship between its different major oil producing regions matter for the global energy sector. 

What Happened

The tension between Iraq's federal government and its semi-autonomous Kurdish region appears to be simmering down. According to Rudaw, a media outlet affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Kurdish and Iraqi officials have reached an agreement to replace the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that currently patrol Kirkuk city with KDP-affiliated peshmerga forces. The news came from an official within the KDP and was tacitly confirmed by a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official, but the report still needs to be taken with a grain of salt — particularly because it has not been confirmed by Baghdad or PMF officials. However, the news does indicate that Iraq's federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Arbil are holding discussions over one of their thornier disagreements.

Why It Matters

A return of KDP fighters to Kirkuk would suggest improved relations between Bagdad and Arbil, which could lead to breakthroughs in other ongoing disagreements — including energy production, cooperation against the Islamic State and territorial disputes. Currently, some Kirkuk residents view the presence of PMF personnel as a visible symbol of federal, Shiite or Iranian influence in their community. And Kurdish authorities, particularly those in the KDP, desperately want to reassert their political influence over Kirkuk by deploying peshmerga forces to areas now held by federal forces — including Shiite PMF troops.

Kirkuk province is not only home to lucrative oil reserves and a complex mosaic of Iraqi communities, it also lies in territory claimed by both Arbil and Baghdad. Because of this, it is one of the most contentious locations in Iraq and is struggled over by competing military and political forces. Moreover, the region has caught the attention of Turkey and Iran, which both maintain local interest groups in Kirkuk to pursue the benefits of deeper trade ties with the wealthy province.


Iraq's federal government deployed forces to Kirkuk province in October 2017 as a punitive response to the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum. The move cost the KDP — which spearheaded the referendum — its political influence in Kirkuk, as well as some of its military presence. Indeed, the KDP has not been present at a meeting of the Kirkuk Provincial Council since federal forces arrived. Because of this, the KDP's military return to the region — provided it happens — would also indicate that the group has managed to resolve disagreements with other Kurdish politicians from the PUK who weren't fully on board with the independence referendum. As Kurdish authorities work to further their own power by increasing cooperation with each other and with Baghdad, they may also succeed in increasing the Kurdistan region's stability and prosperity. 

Cheat Sheet

  • Kurdistan Region of Iraq: An autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq encapsulating Arbil, Dohuk and Suleimaniyah governorates (provinces).
  • Kirkuk: A city 238 kilometers (148 miles) north of Baghdad and the capital of the oil-rich Kirkuk province. Home to both Kurds and Arabs, a contentious independence referendum in 2017 strained relations between the KRG and Baghdad.
  • KRG: Kurdistan Regional Government. Based in Arbil, the ruling body of Iraq's Kurdistan region, one of the country's four federal regions.
  • PUK: Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. One of the main Kurdish political ruling parties in the region, originally a coalition of five separate political entities.
  • KDP: The Kurdistan Democratic Party. Along with the PUK, one of the main Kurdish political ruling parties in the region. Led by the Barzani tribe.
  • Peshmerga: A catchall term for the armed forces of the various Kurdish factions of Iraqi Kurdistan. The peshmerga are divided in loyalty between the KDP and the PUK.
  • PMF: Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces, sponsored by Baghdad, consisting of at least 40 militias. Along with the peshmerga, these units were heavily involved in the fight against the Islamic State.

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