As the fight against the Islamic State (IS) seems to be entering its final stages in Iraq, there are rising concerns among the country's Kurds about their prospects in the post-IS phase, especially as the procurement of advanced weaponry by the Baghdad government appears to put Kurds at a serious military disadvantage in the long run.
As various parties in the country embrace their places and roles in the new order that will emerge once IS is driven out of major urban areas in Iraq, the Kurds see themselves in an increasing standoff with the Shiite paramilitary groups and the federal government in Baghdad.
The perception of threats posed by the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) toward Kurds has reached such high levels that a senior Kurdish military official affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) let it slip that a war between the battle-hardened Shiite PMUs and Kurds was in store.
“There is no [Iraqi] party that wants the Kurdish people to be free,” Mahmoud Sangawi, a senior official of the PUK, said in a press conference in the town of Halabja where, in 1988, Saddam Hussein killed around 5,000 Kurds in a gas attack. “The Shiite [groups] ... are today planning to confront the Kurds after eliminating Daesh [IS],” Sangawi added.
Sangawi went as far as likening the post-IS threats toward the Kurds to the situation in 1975 when the Kurdish revolt against Baghdad collapsed and led to the end of the first major Kurdish self-rule experiment in Iraq.
It's less common for PUK officials to express such strong critical views of the PMU or the Iraqi government. Between the two major Kurdish parties, the PUK enjoys better relations with the Baghdad government and Shiite groups. In some areas such as Amerli and around Tuz Khormato, the PUK-affiliated units of the Kurdish peshmerga armed forces and the PMU together battled IS in 2014.
In contrast to the PUK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is the dominant party in the Kurdish government, and its leader, Massoud Barzani, have adopted a far more aggressive attitude toward Baghdad and the PMU and oppose their presence near Kurdish-controlled borders.
As the Iraqi military rebuilds itself following its heavy losses at the hands of IS in 2014, it has been acquiring advanced weaponry such as F-16 warplanes from the United States. The Kurdish peshmerga forces also suffered some heavy initial losses in their war with IS in areas such as Sinjar and the Ninevah plains, but they have been able to regroup and fight IS effectively with strong support from the US-led international coalition. But it's not clear whether this support will continue when the fight against IS is over in Iraq given that — in the past — Western countries did not provide such military assistance to the Kurds.
Since July 2015 Iraq has received a total of eight F-16 warplanes from the United States at a cost of $65 million. The United States is to deliver a total of 36 such warplanes to Baghdad reportedly by the end of 2018, although it's not clear if the deadline can be met. Kurds have long been worried by the delivery of such advanced fighter jets to Baghdad, fearing they might be deployed against them at some point in the future.
In 2012, Iraqi Kurdistan President Barzani alleged that then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki planned to use them against the Kurds.
There appears to be a growing consensus among Kurds that some sort of confrontation with the ruling Shiite forces in Baghdad is in the making.
Shakhawan Abdullah, a Kurdish representative from the KDP in the Iraqi parliament, said that after the IS threat is mitigated, Kurds might come head to head with other enemies, but he argues that given its many problems, Baghdad might not be able to militarily take on the Kurds anytime soon.
“What's obvious is there are no guarantees in terms of what could happen, and there are serious threats looming,” Abdullah told Al-Monitor.
The Kurdish control of the so-called disputed territories — where the Iraqi army had a major presence before IS ran over western and central Iraq in June 2014 — is a major cause of ongoing tensions and might put the Kurds on one side and the Baghdad government and the PMU on the other, on a collision course. The Kurds are now in charge of most of those disputed territories in provinces such as Ninevah, Kirkuk and Diyala, where there are large Kurdish populations.
Abdullah said of the Kurdish position: “We have not occupied the lands of other people. Our people will not accept us to leave those areas liberated from IS.”
There is reason for concern of an outbreak of armed clashes between the Kurds and the PMU and the Iraqi army. In 2008 and 2012, Kurdish and Iraqi forces came head to head over places such as Jalawla in northern Diyala and Kirkuk, one of the major centers of oil production in Iraq. While Kurds finally ceded control of Jalawla to the Iraqi forces, they did not let go of Kirkuk despite coming under rising pressure from Baghdad.
Over the past couple of years, the Kurds and Shiite paramilitaries have also clashed over Tuz Khormato, a mixed town in the northern part of Salahuddin province. The Shiite forces were initially brought to those areas thanks to the PUK, which allowed them to move there in the summer of 2014 for liberating the Shiite Turkmen town of Amerli of IS.
Iraqi officials have also recently hinted that they oppose Kurdish participation in pushing IS out of Mosul, a development that comes as a shock to the Kurds, given their support to Iraqi operations around Mosul.
Some Shiite officials have been trying to dispel Kurdish concerns over a showdown with the PMU.
Karim Nuri, spokesman for the PMU, recently dismissed the Kurdish fears and Sangawi's remarks as being “baseless.”
“Shiites are not a threat to the Kurds, and the PMU only fights IS and other terrorist groups,” Nuri told Kurdish Rudaw news network Aug. 9.
Deep internal Kurdish divisions at the moment and the split in Kurdish decision-making as to how to deal with Baghdad might further encourage other parties to challenge the Kurds.
With many long-standing disputes over territory, natural resources and the extent of the Kurdish government's power, Mohammed Shareef — a Middle East politics lecturer at the University of Exeter in the UK — believes the procurement of advanced weaponry by Iraq could be the game changer and “a serious threat to Kurdish entity.”
The possession of F-16s and building a functioning air force coupled with Iraq's access to international arms markets as a sovereign state will increasingly give Baghdad a superior military edge that the Kurds cannot match. The Iraqi government has reached out to other countries, such as Russia, to purchase more advanced arms.
Shareef said the historical pattern should be a cause for concern, because whenever Baghdad has felt confident enough to take on the Kurds it has done so — whether in 1960s, 1970s or in recent years under Maliki. “It will be very easy for the sectarian and pro-Shiite government of [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi to use the pretext of re-establishing sovereignty, stability and the rule of law to the Kurdistan region to deploy this army against Kurdish forces,” Shareef told Al-Monitor.
He added that although the Iraqi Constitution clearly rejects the Iraqi army's intervention in the Kurdistan region without an explicit mandate from the Kurdish parliament, “This could be easily ignored if the Iraqi army feels it is prepared to do so.”