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Oct 17, 2017 | 23:22 GMT

7 mins read

Kirkuk: Asking the Next Big Questions

Iraqi Security Forces have secured key energy infrastructure in the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk, following an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Editor's Note

The significance of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) effort to seize critical infrastructure in Kirkuk and to reassert federal control over the city stretches far beyond Iraq. The fight for the multi-ethnic city touches upon dozens of fault lines dividing not only Iraq but also the entire Middle East. Because of this, the seizure of the city threatens to evoke earthquakes, whose tremors will be felt far and wide. As the shock of the initial invasion fades and as those involved begin to stage their responses, we'll be watching the following developments closely.

Will the Kurdish government join forces with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad to govern Kirkuk?

Before the ISF staged its operation, there had been rumors that the faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party led by the Talabani family proposed jointly governing Kirkuk province with Baghdad. In seeming support of the rumors, the Talabani faction ordered Kurdish peshmerga fighters to withdraw and to allow ISF to retake some of the energy installations in the city. It's still uncertain, however, if there's a deal in place between the PUK and Baghdad to jointly manage the province's government or its oil and natural gas resources. That a deal would exist makes sense given the longstanding divisions between the PUK and rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls much of the economy in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Will Baghdad maintain control of Kirkuk's oil exports?

It almost certainly will, at least in some capacity. For the last three years the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been able to export oil produced at the Bai Hassan oil field and the Avanah and Baba Gurgur formations of the Kirkuk oil field, given it had effectively appropriated and incorporated the fields into its own energy sector. The federal government is now in control of those fields and could use them in negotiations with the KRG. But, though Baghdad plans to rebuild its own pipeline to export oil from Kirkuk, right now all export infrastructure from the city goes through Kurdish-controlled territory, which could complicate Baghdad's ability to sell the oil Kirkuk produces. Baghdad, recognizing its constraints, could offer the KRG joint administration of the oil resources or continue transit contracts with it to distribute Iraq's oil wealth. Alternatively, it could shut off production in Kirkuk to increase financial pressure on the Kurdish government. Thus, there's the chance that Iraq's northern oil exports — which amount to around 550,000 barrels per day — could decline by as much as 300,000 bpd. In the long run, Baghdad hopes to boost Kirkuk's production to above 1 million bpd.

What will KRG President Massoud Barzani and his party, the KDP, do next?

The loss of control over parts of Kirkuk will weaken the KRG's position, but it will weaken the KDP even more. Barzani was already facing criticism for extending his presidential mandate that originally was set to end in August 2015. Though he has supported parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for Nov. 1, it's not clear that they will actually be held. To rebuild some of his support, Barzani could tap into nationalistic sentiments by painting pro-PUK segments of the peshmerga, which withdrew from Kirkuk when Baghdad entered, as traitors and by holding fast to his calls for Kurdish independence from Iraq. It's more likely, however, that the weakened KDP will reduce its demands on Baghdad to facilitate negotiations.

How will Turkey balance conflicting imperatives?

Turkey has so far supported Iraq's military operations in Kirkuk, but the country is also strategically allied with the KDP and is uninterested in losing the benefits that has provided. Turkey's support for the Kirkuk operation represents a low point for Turkey-Kurdistan relations. Though Turkey supports the KDP, it doesn't want it to become strong enough to assert independence, thereby encouraging Kurdish groups across the Middle East — including in Turkey — to follow suit. In Turkey's eyes, official incorporation of Kirkuk into Iraqi Kurdistan is a red line. Rumors of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) involvement have made matters more contentious: One of Turkey's primary objectives domestically is fighting the PKK, and it could easily justify entering into the Kirkuk conflict if the PKK were involved. That said, if Barzani and the KRG back away from declaring independence, Turkey could resume its support.

How will the United States respond to the fight between allies?

The recent turn of events in Kirkuk places the United States in a tight spot, caught between Arbil and Baghdad. The United States has supplied military training, equipment and aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, across party and tribal lines (though it has worked most closely with KDP-aligned peshmerga given the KDP has more control over governmental institutions in Kurdish-administered areas). The United States will try to appease both sides, drawing on the deep security and economic relationships it has with each. If it comes to choosing, the United States will back Baghdad in the dispute, deepening the sense of betrayal the Kurds feel toward the United States. But the fact is that, as the fight against the Islamic State has moved away from Kurdish-controlled areas, the United States has less need for the Kurdish peshmerga.

Will the conflict destroy any hope of Kurdish unity in Iraq?

The past few days in Kirkuk have underscored historical divisions between different Kurdish parties and tribes in Iraqi Kurdistan. Though residents of the region overwhelmingly voted "yes" in the independence referendum, there were many who either voted "no" or did not vote in the referendum at all. It was a common worry in eastern regions that the referendum was a KDP-led project that would have little benefit for the Kurdish population in general. In one eastern province in particular, Suleimaniyah, dominated by the PUK, the political and military divide will soon be made more clear as disputes with the KDP-controlled Arbil heat up. The discord opens the door for other powers — including Iran and Turkey — to further their own agendas in the region.

What does Iran stand to gain?

Iran has close ties with numerous Iraqi militias, having trained, equipped and politically supported their leaders for years, and in some cases, such as with the Badr Brigades, for well over a decade. Though there is no complete accounting for all the groups present when ISF entered, several Iran-backed Shiite militias, including Kata'ib al-Imam, claimed to be there at the time. They, however, had a minimal role in fighting. Still, KDP-affiliated media and the Kurdistan Regional Security Council both allege that Iran strongly backed the ISF operations in Kirkuk. Given the possibility that Iran-backed militias will be able to hold their ground in Kirkuk after a Kurdish withdrawal, many Kurds fear that Iran will be able to capitalize on the territorial shifts.

As Iraqi nationalism grows, how much support has Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gained?

Iraq's major Shiite leaders — grassroots leader Muqtada al-Sadr and more establishment-oriented leader Ammar al-Hakim — have been tapping into Iraqi nationalism as of late. Even former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has joined in the movement in an effort to rekindle his own support. Baghdad's operation to retake Kirkuk plays into this nationalism at a sensitive political time, ahead of April 2018 elections. Al-Abadi has the reputation of being an inclusive prime minister, accommodating of Iraq's Sunni, Shiite and Turkmen populations. He even worked with the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, in contrast to al-Maliki, his predecessor. The reassertion of federal control over Kirkuk could potentially strengthen his image ahead of the elections, cancelling out any damage that may have been done by the independence referendum.

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