Iraqi and Kurdish Forces In Armed Standoff Over Kirkuk Region

Iraqi and Kurdish forces remain locked in an armed standoff in the disputed Kirkuk region after Iraq ordered the Kurds to surrender military positions. This follows the recent independence referendum held in Kurdistan, which suggested the incorporation of Kurdish majority areas, like Kirkuk, into an independent Kurdistan.

Kirkuk Governor Najm Eddine Karim, who was recently removed from his position but refuses to stand down, has said that “the demands of the Hashed al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) to evacuate Kirkuk and hand over control of the territory, its inhabitants and natural resources are totally unacceptable.” An unidentified Iraqi soldier told AFP that “our forces are not moving and are now waiting for orders from the general staff.” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has maintained that Iraq is “not going … to make war on our Kurdish citizens” but has also said that further discussions to incorporate Kirkuk—and other Kurdish majority areas—into Kurdistan cannot be accommodated until the independence vote is annulled. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has told reporters that U.S. military advisers, deployed on both sides, are “trying to tone everything down and to figure out how to move forward without losing sight of the enemy (ISIS).”

The situation is difficult and could escalate if there are misconceptions on either side. The deployment of U.S. military advisors on either side should decrease the chances of this happening. It is important that both sides are not ‘swaggering’ and sending troops to the area to deter the other. This will only result in a security dilemma, more tension, and less room for error. Instead, each side should pursue other channels that enable better communication, such as diplomacy, in order to deescalate the situation without threat or use of force.

Kurdish forces took control of the area after defeating ISIS and Iraqi troops around the region. On September 25, an independence referendum was held for Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Al Jazeera, it was held in three Iraqi provinces that make up Kurdistan, including areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administrations. Electoral commission officials released the results of the referendum in a conference in Irbil on Wednesday; 93 percent voted in favour of independence. Turnout was 72.61 percent among those eligible to vote. However, Iraq opposed the incorporation of including oil-rich areas like Kirkuk into Kurdistan’s autonomous region.

This delicate situation could have serious implications in the region given that ISIS continues to operate in the area. Many fear that an independent Kurdistan would divide the region and provide an opportunity for ISIS to take advantage. On the other hand, the clash of Kurdish and Iraqi forces would likely pre-occupy the two sides more and provide an easy opportunity for ISIS to attack. Thus, it is important for both Kurds and Iraqis to tread carefully and avoid threatening force.