ERBIL, Iraq — Political wrangling between Iraq's federal government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north appears to have, for the time being, overshadowed planning for a military offensive to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS).
After what they saw as a series of antagonizing gestures coming from Iraqi authorities in recent days, Kurdish military representatives reacted by canceling at the last minute their plan to attend an important trilateral meeting between the KRG and officials from Iraq and the United States. The meeting was planned for July 22 in Baghdad to discuss Mosul's liberation, Halgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga, told Al-Monitor. The meeting has not been rescheduled yet.
The row started when the Iraqi government excluded Kurds from participation in its delegation in the anti-IS global coalition's meeting in Washington, which kicked off July 21. As a major force in the fight against IS, the Kurds did not take their exclusion from the Washington talks favorably. Subsequently, the Kurdish representative to the United States was incorporated into the Iraqi delegation.
The marginalization of the Kurds at the international forum came shortly after a memorandum of understanding signed July 12 between the US government and KRG representatives in the Kurdish capital, Erbil, which ensured US financial aid of up to $415 million and military support for Kurdish peshmerga forces. That memorandum was primarily meant to give the Kurds incentive to contribute strongly to any future offensive to retake Mosul from IS.
Then on the first day of the coalition meeting in Washington, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalil al-Obeidi told a group of journalists, “We will not even let” Kurdish forces take part in the battle of Mosul.
Beside the novelty of such remarks coming from Obeidi, they were also shocking because the Kurdish forces are strategically positioned to take part in any future offensive against IS in Mosul. The peshmerga have encircled Mosul from eastern, northern and western sides and are just about 10 miles away from the city in some areas such as Mount Bashik, northeast of Mosul.
Obeidi's statements came a couple of weeks after Iraqi forces captured the strategic Qayyarah air base, some 37 miles south of Mosul, in early July. Iraqi forces can use the strategic air base as a supply hub and launching pad for future operations toward Mosul and hence reduce their reliance on the KRG. So far, the Iraqi military has been largely operating out of its command base in the Kurdish-controlled town of Makhmour, which lies to the southeast of Mosul.
A day after Obeidi's remarks, the Iraqi Defense Ministry released a statement on its website saying an item in the memorandum between the United States and the KRG requires that the Kurdish forces pull out of the “areas liberated during the Ninevah operation in line with a timetable set by the Iraqi government.” It also said the memorandum obliges the KRG to provide “full cooperation and coordination” with the Iraqi government during the Ninevah offensive.
That statement did not go down well with the KRG. On July 23, the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga issued a statement of its own rejecting the Iraqi Defense Ministry's claim that the Kurdish forces will have to withdraw from the Ninevah areas liberated from IS. The KRG statement, a copy of which was sent to Al-Monitor, said the KRG forces will only withdraw from areas liberated after the signing of the recent US-KRG memorandum of understanding and then only after those areas are safe and secure.
“This item does in no way mean the peshmerga will pull out of the [Ninevah] areas liberated over the past two years and the pullout [condition] only applies to the city of Mosul itself,” the statement said.
The Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga even threatened to cease all cooperation with the Iraqi forces “if it's felt that the heroism and sacrifices of the peshmerga are being treated inappropriately.”
Perhaps sensing the damage caused by the statements on the extent of Kurdish cooperation with Iraqi forces, the Iraqi Defense Ministry put out a “clarification” July 23 saying Reuters news agency had misquoted Obeidi as saying that the peshmerga will not be allowed to take part in the Mosul offensive. The statement said the question of who will participate in the battle of Mosul will be determined by the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Two days later, Massoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan's acting president, offered his take on the recent chain of events, lashing out at Baghdad and Washington for not involving the Kurds in the anti-IS coalition meeting. The whole episode, Barzani said, shows “we are at a crossroad: either to accept this reality where other people can create problems for us whenever they want and determine our destiny … or make a joint decision [as Kurds] and move toward sovereignty and independence.”
The key question now appears to be whether the antagonistic rhetoric and actions from both sides will affect the planning and possibly execution of the Mosul operation. Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city and after much-touted recent victories by Iraqi forces in Fallujah and Qayyarah, Abadi's government appears keen to dislodge IS from its final major stronghold in the country.
Renad Mansour, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, described the Kurdish statements and actions in recent days as a “typical negotiation tactic.” He said knowing that their peshmerga are needed in any future operation to capture Mosul, the Kurds are trying to “gain as many guarantees and commitments as possible from the United States and Baghdad.”
“The Kurds are important because the Iraqi military — even the [elite] Golden Division — cannot do it [liberate Mosul] alone,” Mansour, who has written on the Kurds' role and ambitions in post-IS Mosul, told Al-Monitor. “The two strongest fighting groups are the [Shiite] Popular Mobilization Units [PMU] and the peshmerga. Out of these two, the residents of Mosul would accept the peshmerga much more than the PMU, which reminds them of Shiite-rule and [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki's problematic second term.”
Hikmat said military cooperation between the Kurdish, Iraqi and US sides over Mosul is still ongoing despite the tensions, showing Kurdish and Iraqi desire not to take matters too far.
He said that due to the peshmerga's strategic positions around Mosul, the city's importance for Kurdish security and the presence of significant numbers of Kurds there, the peshmerga forces will be part of an eventual offensive on Mosul.
“But our major concern is avoiding getting caught in possible future sectarian tensions between the city's residents and Iraqi forces,” Hikmat added.
Many Ninevah residents have expressed their opposition to the participation of the PMU, and it is still not clear whether those forces will be allowed to take part in the Mosul operation.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.