Thursday, October 19, 2017

Iraq and Iran compel Kurdish withdrawal from Kirkuk

by: Omer Kassim, the ISW Iraq Team, and Jennifer Cafarella

A collapse of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga under joint pressure from Iraq and Iran shortly after the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017 empowers Iran and could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the country.  Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from disputed areas across northern Iraq on October 16th and 17th, 2017. A combined force of Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian proxies gathered south of Kirkuk starting on October 13th in order to compel Iraqi Kurdistan to relinquish control of the oil-rich city. The combined ISF-proxy force moved in to secure the city as well as nearby military bases and oil fields on October 16th after the Peshmerga abandoned their positions. Peshmerga forces also withdrew from areas in Ninewa, Salah al Din, and Diyala Provinces. The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk. Kurdish populations now under the control of the Iraqi government and Iran's proxies may drive an insurgency, however. Civil unrest against Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies began in Kirkuk and Khanaqin on October 18th. Prime Minister Abadi ordered a handover of security in Kirkuk to local police, and early reports indicate Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies may have drawn back from Khanaqin in northern Diyala. It is unclear whether these withdrawals will pacify the Kurdish population.