Goos Hofstee
Last updated: 27 November, 2012

Rising tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq’s central government is dealing with a stronger and more united Kurdistan. The effects are violent and could be worse, writes Goos Hofstee in an analysis.

An armed dispute between civilians last Friday in the town of Tuz Khurmatu has led to the involvement of both the federal Iraqi police and the Kurdish Peshmerga armed forces. The Iraqi Kurdistan media outlets are unclear about the details of the incident that took place outside the office of the President of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but it seems that for reasons unknown, the Iraqi federal police attacked a PUK cadre in town, after which the PUK responded and a fire fight ensued.

While the incident at first might seem insignificant, it is important to place it in the wider context of Kurdish-Iraqi relations. When we look at it closely, the incident in Tuz Khurmatu turns out to be not just a local squabble between competing security forces, but an indication of the local, national and regional interests at play.

The incident is the first military confrontation between Iraqi Kurdish and central government forces that escalates to an actual fire fight since 2003. The episode follows rising tensions between Baghdad and the Regional Kurdish Government (RKG), but also reminds us of the long standing Kurdish wish for autonomy. Furthermore, it indicates that the Kurds are taking advantage of the current volatile circumstances in neighbouring Syria, the difficult position of Turkey in this conflict, and the fragile situation in Iraq itself. With Iraqi Kurdistan determined to rid itself of Baghdad and establish itself as a regional player, and Baghdad trying to curb the rising independence of the region, relations have inevitably been increasingly strained between the two sides.

On more than one occasion this year, this tension has resulted in violent confrontations. Most recently, on July 27, thousands of Iraqi troops, tanks, and artillery set out to seize the Fish Khabur border crossing with Syria in Iraq’s northern Zumar district. This border area is disputed by the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the KRG. A tense standoff between the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga ensued, which could only be brought to an end by American pressure and led to a very fragile agreement between the two sides.

The standoff was connected to Syrian-Kurdish developments. In the weeks leading up to the move, the Syrian Army withdrew from the Kurdish-dominated northeast. Almost immediately, the Kurds took over control of the area, and the region came under the rule of the Kurdish-Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to the PKK.

While Iraq and Turkey do not agree on much these days, they are both opposed to Kurdish control of northeast Syria, Daniel Brode, a regional expert and Intelligence Analyst, explained. For Turkey, with its violent history with the PKK in northern Iraq, the development of a new front for PKK militants would be inconvenient in the least. Baghdad on the other hand is worried about the increased regional influence of Iraqi Kurdistan, and its growing autonomy.

“The KRG has hundreds of thousands of troops, great economic potential and has showed an increasing unity; all of which threaten the Iraqi government’s efforts to maintain a unified, powerful, and stable Iraq,” Brode said.

While the situation was already heating up, relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership reached an all-time low following the Iraqi government’s decision to set up a new military command codenamed the Dijla forces in September. The Dijla forces are to become responsible for all security matters in the disputed Kirkuk region. The Kurds have been fiercely protesting this move, as the Peshmerga forces have assumed full responsibility for the security of the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq since the American invasion of the country in 2003.

To make matters worse, there have been recent reports in the Kurdish press claiming that the Kurdish Regional Government is planning to set up its own military command in the area to counter the Dijla force. This lead the prime minister’s office recently to warn the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to “keep away” from the federal government troops based in the disputed areas, calling on the army to exercise  “utmost restraint”.

Both sides have warned that if a solution would not be found soon, the rising tensions could lead to a serious escalation of the conflict. The chief of the Dijla Operations Command, Abd-al-Amir Al-Zaydi, has warned local officials that he is coming to the town of Tuz Khurmatu to arrest Kurdish partisan officials. At the same time, Mahmud Sangawi, a military commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has stated that he hopes that Al-Zaydi will come to his senses and will adopt dialogue and legal measure.

“If he intends to come over boasting around with his force in a bid to control our headquarters and those of the other Kurdish political parties, we will never accept that and will defend ourselves by all means,” Sangawi added.

Incidents like the one in Tuz Khurmatu indicate that while Baghdad may be calling for restraint, the Kurdish forces are not likely to be prepared to put up with the renewed assertiveness from Baghdad. Kurdish parties have become increasingly unified in the face of Baghdad’s incursions. Therefore, it might very well be that Baghdad’s move to attack Kurdish villages and mingle in their local affairs turn out to be a very costly move.

When it comes to the Kurdish aspirations, it is in Baghdad’s interest to divide and rule. Regional players like Iran, Syria and Turkey have always tried to thwart Kurdish interests and were able to exploit the Kurdish cause for their own gains. This situation has always served Baghdad’s interests because it divided the internal Kurdish parties and players.

As Daniel Brode explains, now that Iraq’s Kurdish de-facto state is on the rise, other Kurdish sectors will recognize the potential and will likely seek to get a piece of the cake, thereby making the KRG even more influential as it remains the region’s only Kurdish entity. A stronger, more united KRG means that the Kurdish cause is much more difficult to exploit, not only by regional actors but also by Baghdad itself.

Ironically, the central government’s assertiveness towards the Kurds and its eagerness to keep regional powers from interfering is resulting in a Kurdish unity that might create a far more powerful opponent than the divided factions Baghdad used to deal with until now.

Goos Hofstee is a freelance journalist based in London and Cairo. She is a regular contributor to Your Middle East. Goos most recently wrote Review: “Wadjda” by Haifaa Al-Mansour.

Justine Grace Swaab contributed to this article.