Meanwhile, a deal was brokered behind the scenes to ensure that some of the peshmerga melted away without a fight. The Iranian Quds Force commander Qassim Soleimani made a series of visits to the Kurdish region after last month’s independence referendum. He made various offers and threats to the family of Jalal Talabani, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader who had just died. Soleimani’s deal would effectively turn PUK-controlled regions into an Iranian protectorate. His deputies simultaneously met PUK peshmerga officers in Kirkuk and told them: “If you resist, we will crush you and you will lose everything.”
Kirkuk is a city of shared heritage, despite decades of attempted demographic engineering to monopolize its oil wealth. Efforts by Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds to unilaterally decide the status of Kirkuk risk these disputed regions falling into the hands of parties hostile to their interests.
Shiite paramilitaries from Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi took a primary role in last week’s military operation, which also involved security forces such as the Federal Police, controlled by the Interior Ministry, dominated by Iran’s allies under Minister Qassim Al-Araji. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled from Iran-backed militias, who carried out summary killings and looting and burnt down Kurdish homes.
Ominous statements by Turkish leaders about reversing the demographic situation in Kirkuk offered carte blanche to militias who have proved themselves adept at sectarian cleansing operations across central Iraq. These same paramilitaries unleashed the bloodbath that forced half of Baghdad’s Sunni residents to flee their homes around 2007.
Calls by the Prime Minister for Hashd forces to withdraw from Kirkuk appear to have been partly heeded. However, they are still a provocative presence in ethnically mixed towns that they were quick to festoon with slogans, flags and images of Ayatollah Khamenei. These Iranian proxies spent the past three years consolidating control over territories in Ninawa, Salahuddin and Diyala. They will try to maintain their grip on whatever conquered territory they can.
This is a spectacular failure of American diplomacy. Those US diplomats who still retain their posts in Middle Eastern embassies sit on their hands in a policy vacuum, doing nothing to curb Iranian interference. Other Western embassies are also guilty of diplomatic lethargy.
Trump’s tough posturing toward Iran has been exposed as a sour joke. The annexation of Kirkuk is rightly seen as Iran’s blatant rebuke to Trump’s vacuous speech decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal — without any semblance of a strategy for countering Tehran. The Emperor has no clothes! Trump’s inane response to the retaking of Kirkuk — “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides” — demonstrates a White House devoid of presidential stature and lacking an elementary comprehension of events, or any sense of responsibility.
The Iraqi prime minister is taking the credit but the recapture of Kirkuk from the Kurds was ordered in Tehran and a swath of northern Iraq is now an Iranian protectorate.
By holding the independence referendum, Masoud Barzani played a highly risky hand at a massively sensitive moment. He has fallen on his face harder than anyone could have predicted. Although he is denouncing his PUK rivals as traitors, this mess is his creation.
Barzani is a great survivor, but the Kurdish cause is in a dire place. America left them high and dry while Tehran, Ankara and Baghdad plotted. While the Kurdish parties blame each other, their enemies will add fuel to the fire and push the Kurds back toward civil war.
This decisively alters the regional balance of power in Iran’s favour. As one former Western ambassador to Baghdad told me: “The US got so angry with the Kurds they’ve let Iran take over Kirkuk with Abadi lamely taking the photo-credit — and split the one bit of Iraq that was actually on our side. This really is the end.”
We can sympathize with Kurdish aspirations; a system of limited autonomy is a sensible framework for the diverse regions of Iraq. However, full-blown separatism leads to fragmentation, political weakness and instability. If Iranian proxies aren’t compelled to fully withdraw, this risks becoming a further step toward the ultimate disintegration of Iraq, while predatory powers seek to carve up the most strategically valuable regions for themselves.
Resorting to force to resolve a political dispute exacerbates the alienation that Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities feel toward Baghdad’s sectarian governance. In Iraq, Syria and other fragile regional states, the overriding priority must be national reunification. As long as we fail to achieve this, the vultures will circle.
Next week we will hear the conclusions of US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s Iran policy review. Will it amount to more than the current approach of barking loudly, but failing to bite?
In 1947 thousands of Palestinian citizens fled for their lives as Zionist militias attacked villages, killing and committing atrocities as they went. The recent plight of the Rohingya shows the relentless tendency of history to repeat itself. Under the guise of defeating Daesh and settling political scores, the world must not allow renewed campaigns of sectarian and ethnic cleansing in Iraq at the behest of hostile foreign powers.
The status of Kirkuk has for decades been the primary geopolitical bone of contention between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. Let’s not allow it to be decisively resolved in favor of Tehran.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed
numerous heads of state.