Iraqi Army column rolls into the oil fields near Kirkuk after Kurdish forces withdrew

Opinion: How Kirkuk could trigger a new major war

  • Iran helped broker the Iraqi government’s nearly bloodless retaking of Kirkuk
  • Yet Baghdad’s reassertion of control may tempt it to rein in Iran-sponsored militias
  • Saudi Arabia is courting Iraq’s unsectarian prime minister, Haider al-Abadi
  • An Iran-Iraq conflict would suit Saudi and American aims, and possibly even Russia’s

September’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan has altered the political geometry of the Middle East. One of its less expected consequences may be to trigger a showdown between Iran and one of its apparent allies, the resurgent Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Such a confrontation would ultimately bring in the United States and Saudi Arabia on Baghdad’s side.

How this regional conflict might come to pass is worth examining in detail.

A strong reaction from the Iraqi federal government to the Kurdish referendum was anticipated. By sending in the army to retake the disputed city of Kirkuk and its nearby oil fields, along with the border crossings into Iran and Turkey, Mr. Abadi cut off the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its president, Massoud Barzani, from their main sources of revenue – oil and customs duties.

The move also had the consequence of dividing Kurdish political forces. Mr. Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Erbil are at loggerheads with the Sulaymaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which Mr. Barzani has blamed for treacherously giving up Kirkuk without a fight. This conflict has also meant a weakening of the Kurdish Peshmerga militias, which had established control over much of this disputed territory during the counteroffensive against Daesh.

The Iraqi armed forces pushed successfully and relatively easily into Kirkuk and other areas previously under KRG Peshmerga control. They were supported by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias, which are armed, trained and sponsored by Iran, and are said to have strong links with the Quds Force unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In fact, before the federal forces pushed into Kirkuk, the Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, who oversees Iran’s foreign operations, was reportedly in the city for talks with PUK and Peshmerga leaders to arrange its de facto surrender.

Given this kind of diplomatic influence, backed by the 60,000-strong PMF, why would Iran get sucked into a confrontation with the Iraqi authorities – especially one not of its own choosing?

Two models

The Kurdish referendum, whether intended or not, is forcing Iraq to make a stark choice between two models of the state. It could continue to follow the sectarian model inspired by Iran – or revert to modern Iraq’s roots as a national state based on a classic constitution.

Iran has used its revolutionary, cross-border theocratic model to undermine internationally recognized state boundaries and institutions – primarily by deploying the Quds Force and allied militias such as the PMF and Hezbollah. Its constant policy, in Iraq and elsewhere, has been to create chaos as a way of acquiring local leverage and exercising control. For example, General Soleimani’s personal intervention in Kirkuk helped split the Kurdish forces and shattered the Shia-Kurdish alliance that underlay Iraq’s constitutional settlement.

Mr. Abadi is aware that a unitary state cannot survive in Iraq while tolerating autonomous, well-armed militias

Iran’s method is not to achieve stability by exercising control over regional capitals, but to promote instability as a foreign policy tool and a bargaining chip with the U.S.

This intervention poses a challenge to the federal authorities in Baghdad, but also a potential opportunity. Having neutralized the Peshmerga, they will be hard-pressed to ignore demands to do the same to the PMF – the main pillar of Iranian influence in the country. Prime Minister Abadi continues to talk openly about enforcing the constitution. He is a remarkably unsectarian figure charting a distinctly Iraqi national course. Not dominated by Iran, he is acutely aware that a unitary state cannot survive in Iraq (or Syria or Lebanon, for that matter) while tolerating the existence of multiple, autonomous, well-armed militias.

The Kurdish referendum was primarily a constitutional gambit to redefine the status of disputed areas, especially Kirkuk, which was supposed to have happened through a plebiscite mandated by Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution. But it inadvertently pushed Mr. Abadi to choose between a constitutional model of the state (also the Kurds’ vision, albeit clumsily handled) – in which the legally constituted government has a monopoly on the use of force within internationally recognized boundaries – and Iran’s theocratic model.

Saudi King Salman receives Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Riyadh in October 2017
Oct. 22, 2017: King Salman of Saudi Arabia (center L) receives Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (center R) at the royal palace in Riyadh for the latter’s second visit in four months (source: dpa)

Saudi connection

The Iraqi prime minister picked up important support from Muqtada Al-Sadr, a key Shia cleric and the scion of an illustrious family of religious leaders who controls a very large populist movement across Baghdad and the south of Iraq. Significantly, both Mr. Abadi and Mr. Sadr have opened a dialogue with Saudi Arabia – Iran’s archenemy among the Sunni Arabs – taking advantage of the new course being charted by Mohammed bin Salman, the young crown prince who has seized the reins of Saudi politics. Prince Mohammed is determined to bring Iraq and Iraqi Shias closer to the Arab fold rather than let them be dominated by Iran.

This summer, he invited Prime Minister Abadi (in June) and Mr. Sadr (in July) to Riyadh. By regional standards, the results have been spectacular. The Iraqi federal government – supposedly Shia-dominated and Iran-influenced – is cooperating on a wide range of political, security and economic issues with the arch Sunni Arab power.

Iraqi cooperation with Saudi Arabia is a flagrant challenge to Iran’s regional position

Direct flights between Riyadh and Baghdad have resumed for the first time in 27 years, while the two countries are discussing Saudi-funded agricultural projects using Iraqi land and expertise. What was most striking about Prime Minister Abadi’s comments at the news conference discussing this cooperation is that he went out of his way to denounce sectarianism. Cooperating with Saudi Arabia was to the benefit of both countries’ citizens, he said.

This is a flagrant challenge to Iran’s regional position. It would be tempting for Mr. Abadi – with support from Shia leaders like Mr. Sadr and from Riyadh – to take the logical next step and challenge the PMF. This would be intolerable to Tehran, which is already fighting on multiple fronts in Yemen and Syria, and may soon be drawn into renewed fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon and possibly along the Israeli-Syrian border. A protracted armed conflict with Iraq might now be added to the list. Any weakening of the PMF would have strategic significance, since it might interrupt the vital land link from Iran to Syria and Lebanon.

Sudden acceleration

The KRG’s de facto collapse will mean diminished regional autonomy for the Kurds and a return to centralized rule from Baghdad, including control of the Kirkuk oil fields. This trend is likely to intensify. The question is whether the Iraqi Army will push into Erbil, the KRG capital, and whether is ready to wrest control from the battle-hardened and ideologically indoctrinated PMF militias.

The sudden political acceleration in Riyadh suggests such a moment could be near. The Saudis have taken an assertive posture, accusing Iran and Hezbollah of direct responsibility for the Nov. 4 missile attack on Riyadh. They vowed retaliation for this “act of war” in a time and manner of their own choosing. The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, which he pointedly announced in Riyadh, has shattered the Saudi-Iranian truce in Lebanon. The Saudi pledge to fight Hezbollah wherever it is found will only increase tensions between Iran and its allies in Iraq and Iraqi nationalists of all sects and religions.

This scenario could be an answer to the Trump administration’s dream of rolling back Iran’s regional influence. Even Russia would have reason to applaud, as it seeks to clip Tehran’s wings in Syria. This convergence of interests has the potential to produce a regional war – perhaps first in Lebanon, then in Iraq and along the Syrian-Israeli border.

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