“Liberation” of Territories in Kirkuk: A Quest for Political Power?

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The governor of the Iraqi Province of Kirkuk, Najm al-Din Omar (R), attends a meeting with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani (C) on February 17, 2015, in the oil hub of Kirkuk, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) north of Baghdad. AFP/Marwan Ibrahim

By: Shida al-Amin

Published Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The city of Kirkuk, and the governorate in general, is set to become the arena of a new political confrontation. The nature of this confrontation depends on which parties will participate in regaining territory that has fallen under the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since last summer.

Erbil — The two main opponents in the arena today are the Peshmerga forces in Erbil and the “popular mobilization” forces in Baghdad. There has been increased bickering between the two in the media; Kirkuk is one of the disputed areas between the central government and the Kurdish north. Meanwhile, some parties are seeking to stir up other conflicts within the governorate, and are devising schemes that may affect all Iraqi territories.

During a visit to the city of Kirkuk a week ago, president of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, said that Kirkuk currently does not need any additional forces. He said that the Kurdish Region will make every effort to defend Kirkuk and its components, noting that “should there be a need to bring in the popular mobilization forces, the request should be made by the Peshmerga forces alone.”

A few days after Barzani’s visit to Kirkuk, Ribawar Talabani, head of the Kirkuk provincial council, said that “so far, no agreement has been signed between the local administration in Kirkuk and head of the Badr Organization Hadi al-Amiri to bring the popular mobilization forces to Kirkuk and launch operations to liberate the areas.” In a press interview, Talabani said that “a general agreement was reached between President Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Munich (part of the Munich Security Conference held on February 8, 2015) on conducting joint operations to liberate territories from ISIS elements, but they did not agree on the areas where joint operations are to take place.”

The talk about dividing areas into zones where “joint operations” will take place reflects the criticality of military action in the governorate of Kirkuk, given that it is a key tool for asserting political power in a disputed area.

The Peshmerga forces had consolidated their control over the city of Kirkuk in June following attacks by ISIS. Peshmerga Spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters: “All of Kirkuk is under the control of the Peshmerga forces, and the Iraqi army no longer has a presence there.”

Speaking with Al-Akhbar, Adnan Kirkuki, spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leadership council in Kirkuk, said that “the future plan to protect Kirkuk includes reinforcing Peshmerga posts, both logistically and with arms. There is a sufficient presence of Peshmerga forces on the confrontation lines. Inside the city, the security services have developed a plan to protect citizens, property, and vital facilities.” On the participation of Peshmerga forces in the liberation of areas controlled by ISIS, Kirkuki said that there is “coordination at the regional level, and at the level of the (central) federal government with regards to fighting ISIS. The Peshmerga forces may take part as supporting forces to liberate the governorate of Kirkuk, as well as Mosul.”

Despite the reluctance by the Kurdish side to allow the “popular mobilization” forces to enter the city, Tahseen Kahiah, member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, told Al-Akhbar that there is coordination between all parties in the city.

“Kirkuk is an important, sensitive, and strategic area. It holds key economic facilities, and protecting it during this period is a national duty,” Kahiah said, adding that “there is high-level coordination between the security forces in the area and the popular mobilization forces, aimed at developing a plan to liberate the areas controlled by ISIS. This was preceded by mutual visits between the leaders of the popular mobilization forces and the local administration, and even with the Peshmerga. The results of these meetings will materialize in the next few days.”

In the rest of the governorate, the district of Hawija (southwest of Kirkuk Governorate), and the areas of al-Riyad, Rashad, al-Abbasiya, and al-Nahrawan — which are mainly inhabited by “Sunni Arabs” — have been under ISIS control since June. The “popular mobilization” forces reportedly launched a military operation from the area of al-Fatha in Salahuddin Governorate early last week to regain Hawija District.

The demographically diverse oil-rich governorate, the operation launched by the “popular mobilization” forces, and the presence of the Peshmerga in the city of Kirkuk, opened the door to talk about a recent agreement reached between the two sides to share power in the governorate — while the aim and intentions behind such talk is known.

Mohammed Khalil, member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, said about the Sunni Arabs: “So far, we have not seen any serious moves from the federal government in the direction of liberating Hawija and the areas located southwest of Kirkuk. All we have seen are statements and promises to send troops, and that the government will form security forces — whether in the form of national mobilization forces, popular mobilization forces, or national guard corps — and send army troops. But this talk has yet to be implemented and is worthless.”

“If the government does not help us, what do we do? We do not have a legitimate and legal cover to form special forces. But if the state supports us, we can form forces composed of the sons of the tribes in the region. Thus, we will be able to take part in any battle, and speedily liberate our areas in coordination with the Peshmerga forces stationed on the border,” he told Al-Akhbar.

A Peshmerga officer in Kirkuk told Al-Akhbar that “preparations by our forces are underway, and they have reinforced the force in Kirkuk with heavy and light weapons to counter any possible attack by ISIS. But I do not think that we will participate in the raid on Hawija District and its surrounding areas, because these are Arab areas. We avoid clashing with the people of these areas or inflaming nationalist sentiment. Thus, it would be better if forces comprised of tribes from the area took part in liberating them.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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