Following the killing of 12 Iraqi troops at the beginning of the week by the peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) near the city of Tikrit, the risk of the country drifting into a civil war has become a real possibility.
“We always had concerns that, God forbid, this [conflict] might turn into a sectarian clash. Now our fears are slowly becoming real,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said midweek in Ankara, making clear Turkey is concerned about the situation in its southern neighbor.
A conflict between the central Iraqi government and the KRG has been brewing since 2009 over disputed areas including Kirkuk, Diyala and Saladin provinces, with both sides claiming that the territories should be placed under their own authority. So, though Erdoğan drew attention to the possibility of an eventual civil war in Iraq on a sectarian fault line, a confrontation on ethnic grounds between Kurds and Arabs, is all the more possible.
Since establishing the military unit called the Tigris Operational Command in 2012, the Iraqi central government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has stepped up efforts to take the disputed provinces under the authority of the Iraqi government through troop deployments to Kirkuk, a step harshly criticized by the KRG a couple of months ago when indications of a major confrontation arose.
Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish-Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), describes the state of affairs in Iraq as “highly dangerous.” “If the Kurdish side and the Maliki government are engaged in a game of brinkmanship, nobody could know for sure where the events would lead,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.
Tension is high
The Maliki government has sent heavy arms, including tanks, to the province of Kirkuk, a city known to be sitting atop significant oil reserves, to get the edge militarily over Kurdish forces in the city. But Kurds have warned they are ready to fight for Kirkuk. Peshmerga forces are on high alert, and the commander of the Peshmerga forces, Mahmoud Sankawi, threatened to attack government troops at any moment should the Iraqi government continue sending troops there. Sankawi said 30 tanks and several dozen armored vehicles were heading on Monday night toward Kirkuk.
The tension is also high at Tuzhurmatu, one of the towns in the disputed area, and where the majority of the population is Turkmen. Last week, an Iraqi soldier and a civilian were killed and several wounded when Iraqi soldiers wanted to search a house belonging to a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose leader is current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Both the central government and the Kurdish regional government are said to have sent reinforcements to the city. “A skirmish may break out at any moment. Both sides have piled up a lot of reinforcements,” Niyazi Mimaroğlu, general secretary of the provincial council of Saladin province, said midweek.
Serhat Erkmen, an analyst from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), has the impression that neither the Kurds nor the central Iraqi government seem willing to drive the tension into a major clash at the moment, but he believes an armed confrontation is inevitable in the long run, given the clashing views the Kurds and the Arabs have on Iraqi territory.
Elaborating on the Maliki government’s initiative to establish government control over the disputed territories, which the Kurds claim as their own, Erkmen told Sunday’s Zaman, “Efforts to establish a centralist structure have always led to armed conflict in the history of Iraq.” And as long as issues such as oil law, Kirkuk and disputed territories over which there is sharp disagreement between various political groups in the country are unresolved by compromise, there is always ground for an armed confrontation.
“This is the scenario Turkey desires the least,” Sinan Ülgen, the chairman of the İstanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said. Analysts agree that Turkey, with its strained relations with the Iraqi central government, is not in an ideal position to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the confrontation. Noting that Turkey used to be in a position to talk with all sides in a conflict in the Middle East, “The crisis makes the vulnerability of the foreign policy Turkey has conducted in the last two years more apparent,” Ülgen told Sunday’s Zaman.
Neçirvan Barzani, prime minister of the KRG, made it clear once again on Thursday that they would never accept the formation of the Tigris Operational Command force, and Kurdish political parties met last week to adopt a common stance against the central government. The Iraqi government, on the other hand, has recently adopted a budget of nearly $250 million to be used for the Turkmen, probably with a view of winning them over to his side, living in the provinces Musul, Kirkuk, Saladin and Diyala.
Following the skirmish, Turkey has found itself in a difficult position, as it doesn’t favor in the least the breaking up of Iraq. Turkey fears this could lead to the forming of an independent Kurdish state, which could encourage the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against which Turkey has been fighting for nearly 30 years and which is also known to be ultimately seeking such a state.
Turkey’s relations with the central Iraqi government have soured significantly in the recent past due to the oil agreements it signed with the KRG without the consent of the Iraqi government. Should the tension in Iraq further increase, Turkey is expected, in its own interests, to do its best to restore peace in the conflict that analysts caution may turn out as explosive as the crisis in Syria for the region. “If Turkey defends Iraq’s territorial and political integrity, then it should in the first place, make efforts for the conflict to end,” Erkmen said.
Ali Semin, a Middle East analyst from the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), agrees. “Turkey should never take any side in the conflict. Rather, it should act as mediator,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. He is of the opinion that actors like Ammar al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, wouldn’t allow the conflict to grow to serious proportions between the Arabs and the Kurds, but should the tension deteriorate into full-scale fighting between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, the crisis may possibly lead to the disintegration of Iraq.
If need be, an international task force composed of troops serving under the cap of the United Nations may be positioned to end hostilities in the disputed territories in Iraq, though such a force would likely represent the beginning of the end for a unified Iraq. “Such an international force would in the longer term lead to the break-up of the country,” noted Erkmen. And disintegration of Iraq would also mean disintegration of Iraqi Turkmen, as the Turkmen population is not concentrated in one single area in Iraq, but rather spread across disputed territories.