The tension between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is escalating. Maliki’s soldiers of the Tigris Operations Command (TOC) and the Kurdish Peshmergas are eyeballing each other. Barzani visited the Peshmerga force he deployed under the command of his brother. He carried out a pre-combat inspection and boosted the spirits of his fighters, while Maliki reinforced the TOC forces. Both sides appear to be ready for an Arab-Kurd war.
Question of Kirkuk
The basic cause of the tension is related to control of Kirkuk. The struggle to control oil and natural-gas reserves have been ongoing since the US occupation of Iraq. Today, Kirkuk is under the control of the Kurdish administration. The final goal of the Kurds is to attach Kirkuk to the Kurdish Regional Government. This is why Barzani has been trying hard to change to demographic make up of Kirkuk and Mosul since 2003. He is settling Kurds in Kirkuk, opening up new settlements for the Kurds in Turkmen areas and never misses an opportunity to say, “Kirkuk is a Kurdish town.”
Maliki has reacted sternly to Barzani’s total disregard of Baghdad in recent times.
Causes of the conflict
Middle East expert Ali Semin of BILGESAM (Wise Man Center for Strategic Research) listed the causes of the Maliki-Barzani conflict. These include:
- Northern Iraq’s acting as if it were an independent state and the Barzani administration making oil deals without the approval of Baghdad
- Barzani’s efforts to control Baghdad and Maliki’s efforts to control Erbil
- Barzani’s domestic and foreign policies, which are totally out of sync with Baghdad
- Maliki basing his regional policies on Tehran, and Barzani’s strategy based on Ankara
Status of the Turkmen
In 2003, while the US was preparing to invade Iraq, Turkmens were one of the red lines drawn by Turkey. Placing entirety of Kirkuk under Kurdish rule, attaching it to northern Iraq and any harm to the lives and properties of the Turkmens were Turkey's red lines.
In the confusion that followed the Turkish parliament’s rejection of a US operation in Iraq via Turkey, the redlines related to the Turkmen disappeared, along with some others. The status of the Turkmen went to the bottom of the agenda and never reemerged.
As Maliki and Barzani are deploying their troops in disputed areas where the Turkmen live, what is the status of the Turkmen today?
Semin summarizes the situation: “A potential Arab-Kurdish clash would be mostly in Turkmen areas. The Turkmen, who don’t have an armed force, will suffer. When you look at the situation from this angle, it is important for the Turkmen to go along with the central government in Baghdad no matter who is heading it. Moreover, the Iraqi Turkmen Front must immediately initiate efforts for a reconciliation between Baghdad and Erbil. The Turkmen no longer have time to pursue a wait-and-see policy regarding Iraqi politics.”
Do the Turkmen have the capability to mediate between Erbil and Baghdad? Is there a reason for Maliki and Barzani to pay attention to the Turkmen?
It is not easy answer positively to these questions. For the Turkmen to have such influence, they must feel the power and the support of Turkey behind them. While Ankara has burned its bridges with Baghdad while getting closer to Erbil, it is difficult to claim that the Turkmen feel such power and support behind them.