Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s deployment of special Tigris Forces to Iraq’s disputed territories has renewed concerns about armed conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For many, Maliki’s actions have violated the constitution, provoked Erbil and further threatened Iraqi state stability.
Yet, the source of the problem is not entirely in Baghdad. Since 2003, KRG officials have engaged in what Arab Iraqis consider as their own “Illegal, unconstitutional and provocative” actions: unilaterally moving the Kurdish militia (Peshmerga) into disputed lands, signing oil contracts in contentious areas and bringing the Kurdish north into regional power struggles. These actions may have currently checked central-government power in the territories, but they also have left the KRG internally divided, without allies in Baghdad and increasingly dependent upon Ankara for its economic and political future.
The recent dispute is a byproduct of an ambiguous Iraqi constitution, Kurdish political ambitions and Baghdad’s attempt to re-assert its sovereignty. Since 2003, the KRG has taken advantage of the dysfunctional Iraqi government by placing large swaths of disputed lands under its own jurisdiction. In creating new facts on the ground, the KRG has redrawn internal boundaries and encouraged important demographic shifts — all to the Kurdistan region’s favor. Over time, these territories placed under Kurdish Peshmerga control have become sources of energy wealth and KRG bargaining chips with Baghdad if and when the time comes for negotiation.
Still, the Tigris Forces represent a symbolic victory for Maliki in his attempts to appease Sunni Arab groups and not to be seen solely as a Shia leader. Since the disputed territories are largely in Sunni Arab-majority and “mixed” provinces, the forces represent Maliki’s willingness to re-empower Sunni Arabs disenfranchised by de-Baathification policies. These groups and their cohorts in Baghdad may be critical of Maliki’s centralized power, but they are Iraqi nationalists committed to assuring that the territories remain part of Iraq and not the Kurdistan region. Maliki’s courting of Sunni Arabs also may reflect his preparations for a potential regime change in Syria and the regional spillover of Sunni Muslim influence into Iraq.
While Maliki is maneuvering the crisis to his personal gain, Iraqi Kurds have become increasingly fragmented and alienated in Iraq. These divisions reflect the two regional axes of power that are influencing the Erbil-Baghdad dispute and with which the two main Kurdish parties have become aligned; Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with Turkey and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan with Iran. Although most Kurds realize the economic gains tied to Turkey, those outside KDP circles are aware that Turkey is using Erbil to leverage Baghdad and criticize the extent to which Kurdish leaders have linked the KRG’s fate to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Even in the Barzani strongholds of Dohuk and parts of Erbil, local populations worry that by entering the Turkish axis against Baghdad, the KRG is gambling with Kurdish national interests for a conflict they do not support and are unlikely to win. Most know that given geopolitical realities, Ankara will never accord the KRG independence and have reconciled that their place is in Iraq. These same Kurdish groups know that no regional state, including Turkey, would back the KRG militarily against Baghdad given their own internal Kurdish problems. Iran also has interests in agitating against Turkey and the KRG in the context of Syria and their support for the Syrian opposition.
KRG leaders may be gambling with Kurdish interests in another way. While neither Baghdad nor Erbil can afford a sustained conflict, the KRG has more to lose than does the central government, which did not spend millions trying to convince foreign investors that it is the “Other Iraq” and which controls Iraqi revenues, pipeline-export infrastructure and airspace. Baghdad has already reduced payments to international oil companies (IOCs) in the Kurdish north in the 2013 budget, as well as the percentage allocated to the KRG for its annual budget, even if the overall total has increased. These reductions occur as the KRG expands its own social-welfare function, including increased subsidies for electricity for larger populations in the Kurdistan region and disputed territories.
Moreover, the Kurdish strategy of using IOCs on the front line in the disputed territories, the KRG’s proximity to these lands and its vested interests in the oil contracts makes Kurdish populations more directly vulnerable to potential unrest. The more the KRG pushes into the disputed territories, the more likely disputes will expand and become localized. There also have been economic and financial repercussions. Baghdad has blocked traded goods such as scrap metal and fuel into the Kurdish north, which has limited supplies, increased prices and negatively affected local commerce.
Although Baghdad and Erbil have temporarily quelled the crisis by proposing that local militias provide security in the territories, these measures may only exacerbate the situation while failing to address the key issues. Since local groups have no real authority or military forces of their own, they will likely become proxies for Baghdad and Erbil and their regional supporters, allowing the underlying tensions to continue. The ensuing stalemate may buy time for both sides but could actually work in favor of Maliki, who will continue to use the Kurdish territorial claims to consolidate power through Sunni Arab support, develop Iraq’s southern fields and leave Article 140 unresolved for years to come.
Denise Natali holds the Minerva Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University, where she specializes in Iraq, regional energy security and the Kurdish issue. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the US government.