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Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears

Iraq’s new coalition government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil must start talks on disputed internal boundaries or risk an outbreak of violent conflict along a “trigger” line dividing army troops and Kurdish regional guard forces, the peshmergas.

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Executive Summary

Iraq’s government was long in the making, but its inclusive nature and the way in which it was formed offer hope that it can make progress in the struggle between Arabs and Kurds. The conflict, which has left a devastating imprint on the country’s twentieth-century history, could cause political paralysis or, worse, precipitate Iraq’s break-up. Coalition partners have a unique opportunity to make headway. Failure to seize it would be inexcusable. Both sides should build on the apparent goodwill generated by efforts to establish a government to lay the foundations for a negotiated and peaceful settlement. In particular, they should immediately resume talks over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They also should use their January 2011 agreement to export Kurdish oil through the national pipeline as a basis for negotiations over a revenue-sharing law and a comprehensive hydrocarbons law.

As protests throughout the country have shown, Iraq is not immune from the revolutionary fervour that is coursing through the Middle East and North Africa. Nor should it be, as successive governments’ inability to provide essential services, most importantly a steady supply of electrical power, has given rise to legitimate grievances. In what will be an early test for the new government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to find an effective response to protesters’ demands as a top priority, certainly before the arrival of the hot summer months. The same holds true for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), which has long been buffeted by complaints concerning poor service delivery and widespread corruption. Protests in Suleimaniya in February and March 2011 show it is overdue in taking persuasive remedial action and thus faces the risk of escalating and spreading unrest.

Arab-Kurdish relations remain a tinderbox. In late February, the Kurdistan regional government sent military forces into Kirkuk in a transparent attempt to both deflect attention from events in Suleimaniya and rally the Kurdish population around the supremely emotive issue of Kir­kuk’s status. In doing so, it dangerously inflamed an already tense situation and exacerbated ethnic tensions. This should serve as a reminder of the need for leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to urgently attend to the structural Arab-Kurd fault line.

In joining the coalition government, Kurdish leaders presented conditions on power-sharing and outstanding claims over resources and territory. Maliki says he agreed to most, but to the Kurds the ultimate proof lies in whether and how he fulfils them. It is doubtful that the prime minister can or even would want to satisfy their every demand, and both sides will need to show flexibility in hammering out the required deals – notably on completing government formation, hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing legislation and the delineation of the Kurdistan region’s internal boundaries.

In the past, Crisis Group has argued that Kirkuk should gain special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period, with a mechanism for ultimately resolving its status, and with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly. A deal along these lines appears within reach, and now is the time to pursue it. In January, building on their success in forming the coalition government, Baghdad and Erbil negotiated a tactical agreement on oil exports from the Kurdistan region whose implementation should prove beneficial to both. They ought to take this a step further by starting talks on the range of issues that have plagued their post-2003 relationship.

In June 2009, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) set up a high-level task force whose stated goal was to work toward a negotiated solution – initially through confidence-building mechanisms – for the disputed territories, the broad swathe of land from the Syrian to the Iranian border that Kurds claim as historically part of Kurdistan. UNAMI realised full well, however, that the task force was unlikely to make progress in the months leading up to and following legislative elections, so its real objective was to keep the parties at the table until a new government was formed. This period, which lasted a year and a half, has now come to an end; today, the initiative should be invested with new life.

At the core of the territorial dispute lies the disposition of Kirkuk, the name for three separate but overlapping entities – city, governorate and super-giant oil field – that are subject to competing claims. The 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, but it has run aground on profound differences over interpretation and lack of political will. Meanwhile, the situation in the disputed territories has been left to fester. In areas with a rich ethnic mix, such as Kirkuk city and several districts of Ninewa governorate, this has produced strong tensions and politically-motivated provocations aimed at sparking inter-communal conflict.

To prevent small incidents from escalating into a broader conflagration, the U.S. military in 2009 established so-called combined security mechanisms along the trigger line – the line of control between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional guard force, known as the peshmergas, that runs along the disputed region’s spine. The mechanisms’ key features are joint checkpoints and patrols involving army and guard force personnel with embedded U.S. officers, as well as coordination centres designed to improve communication and build trust between the two sides. Moreover, Baghdad and Erbil agreed to a set of rules governing the deployment of their respective security forces in these areas.

Together, these steps have reduced tensions, but the security forces’ presence and posture in their designated sectors remind a weary population the conflict is far from resolved. The standoff between the army and the peshmergas in Kirkuk’s environs, in particular, and provocative conduct of the Kurdish security police, the asaesh, inside the city augur trouble for the period after U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011. Events in late February-early March, when peshmerga forces deployed around Kirkuk city over the vehement protestations of local Arab and Turkoman leaders, were another warning that the security situation, relatively stable since 2003, may not hold.

The combined security mechanisms were intended to buy time for negotiations over the disputed territories’ status. So far, measures fashioned to break the deadlock, such as a process to organise provincial elections in Kirkuk, have reinforced it, increasing frustration and mutual recrimination. The impact has not been limited to the immediate area: a nationwide census has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements over its application in the disputed territories. Without progress, conflict threatens to erupt as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, including positions along the trigger line. This causes anxiety all around, especially among Kirkuk residents, who appear unanimous in calling for continued U.S. military protection.

There are no easy fixes. Although Maliki’s government might seek to negotiate a troop extension, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. troop presence in the north will be severely curtailed if not ended within a few months. UNAMI has begun to explore Baghdad’s and Erbil’s readiness to re-engage on core issues, but delays in filling key government posts, such as the defence and interior ministers, militate against an early resumption of talks.

The U.S. takes the position that its forces are leaving, so Iraqis will have to sort out problems along the trigger line without the psychological security blanket its military presence has provided. It also appears to believe the impending departure itself might concentrate Iraqi minds and produce political will to agree on the disposition of Kirkuk and other territories. That could be a logical wager, but it also is a risky one. At a minimum, the U.S. should provide strong diplomatic and financial support to UNAMI as it prepares for talks, including by making continued military aid conditional on stakeholders’ constructive participation in negotiations and commitment to refrain from unilateral military moves. UNAMI should propose specific confidence-building steps in the disputed territories based on its impressive (unpublished) April 2009 report. In so doing, it should make every effort to involve political representatives from the disputed territories. Both the Maliki and Kurdistan regional governments should encourage economic activity in the territories and, in Kirkuk, impartial use of extra revenue from oil sales on projects benefiting the entire community.

Most of all, leaders in Baghdad and Erbil need to ask themselves: will they be persuaded to pursue a negotiated solution by the realisation they cannot attain their objectives either by letting the matter linger or by using force? Or will they be prompted only by the outbreak of a violent conflict neither side wants and whose outcome they could not control?

Erbil/Baghdad/Brussels, 28 March 2011

 

Barham Salih, Iraq's President meets with Nobel Peace Prize laureate,Yazidi activist Nadia Murad at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A Way Forward for Sinjar

Sinjar, the Iraqi district that was the site of the Yazidi genocide in 2014, still carries the wounds of that horrible time. But today a confluence of national and international interests holds the promise to revitalise the area and deliver it to local governance.

Sinjar, on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, is still recovering from the trauma of occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the jihadists seized the district, targeting its Yazidi majority in a genocidal campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement. Now an opportunity has arisen to steer the area toward a safer future.

Both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region have formed new governments that seem ready to resume talks about the status of Iraq’s disputed territories. These are fourteen administrative districts – of which Sinjar is one – nominally controlled by Baghdad but claimed by the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. A new UN special representative for Iraq has brought fresh momentum to the task of resolving the disputed territories’ status. Meanwhile, Nadia Murad, a UN Good-will Ambassador who survived the Yazidi genocide, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, attracting renewed international attention to Sinjar in particular. The new government and the UN should jump at this chance to work with Yazidi leaders to rebuild Sinjar as an example for all Iraq.

Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar.

A Region Yet to Recover

Sinjar became the scene of atrocities in August 2014, when ISIS militants murdered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in terror. ISIS is gone; Iraqi and Kurdish forces finished retaking the district in mid-2017. But many of the Yazidi displaced remain huddled in makeshift shelters in the nearby Dohuk province, unable to return due to insecurity and the stagnant economy. Since 2003 a succession of outsiders – first Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), then ISIS, then factions affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (the militias that presently patrol Sinjar) – have controlled the district or parts thereof, pushing the population to take up arms and dividing local elites.

In a February 2018 report, Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar. We called on Baghdad to mediate between factions and restore local governance, in order to allow the displaced to return, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and end foreign interference. We urged the federal government to merge competing militias into a unified police force and open administrative jobs to skilled locals regardless of which outsiders they had aligned themselves with before.

Ten months later, Sinjar is scarcely better off. Both the federal and Kurdish regional governments have been busy with elections in 2018, and neither has paid due attention to Sinjar’s challenges, which they may deem minor. In May, Baghdad tasked the National Reconciliation Committee, a government body with a mandate to facilitate inter-communal peace, with formulating a roadmap for reinstituting governance in Sinjar. The Committee’s thirteen-point plan includes, among other provisions, calls to restore security, as well as basic health care, education and agriculture, to enable the uprooted to return. In late October, Baghdad and Erbil tried to reach a deal on the return of Sinjar’s local councils to the district. As yet, however, there is no progress either in implementing the roadmap or in bringing back the local councils. Sinjar remains dominated by the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

It is tempting to surmise that the area can regain its footing only if Yazidi politicians and military leaders free themselves from dependency on Iraqi, regional and international patrons. Local supervision of governance and security would encourage the displaced to come back to their homes and lands.

Confluence of Interests

Yet Baghdad and Erbil still have a role to play – and so do Iraq’s international partners.

Baghdad’s stake in stabilising Sinjar stems from its newly appointed government’s interest in engagement with Erbil. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the new prime minister, has long enjoyed strong relations with the Kurdish regional government. Cooperation with the Kurds could allow him to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Units. Barham Salih, the new president, likewise has expressed a desire to reaffirm Iraq’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation in the post-ISIS era, and in particular to address the disputed territories question as a way to strengthen his office. Sunni Arabs in Parliament belonging to the Islah bloc could profitably ally with the Kurds to press the Popular Mobilisation Units to withdraw from the disputed territories, home to their main constituencies. The yet-to-be-named defence minister, a post usually assigned to a Sunni Arab, might also back such an agreement, especially if he comes from Islah.

Key international players would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity.

For its part, Erbil wants to engage with Baghdad as a way to recoup its losses (in both autonomy and territory) after the September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s architect, hopes to use senior party officials in ministerial positions in Baghdad to negotiate a settlement on outstanding issues, such as security and governance in the disputed territories, oil exports and revenue sharing. Competition between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could block a settlement, however, as government formation unfolds in Erbil. The KDP’s ambition for hegemony in Iraqi Kurdistan could push the PUK closer to Iran as a way to consolidate its position in Baghdad. A further breach in the KDP-PUK relationship, following a decade of close cooperation in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad, would complicate efforts to settle the disputed territories issue. Yet the two parties still have common interests there. This suggests that as long as the KDP’s engagement with Baghdad endures, it has an interest in working with the PUK to move toward a deal with the federal government on the disputed territories, including Sinjar.

Key international players – the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, U.S. and EU – would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity, enhancing the prime minister’s power and ensuring the government’s stability. Sympathy with the Yazidis’ plight makes Sinjar a strong entry point for renewed international diplomatic engagement in Iraq.

Recommendations

To capitalise on this confluence of interests, Yazidi leaders in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Sinjar district, including Nadia Murad with her moral authority, should advocate that Sinjar become a model for addressing the disputed territories’ status. The Sinjar councils should commit to honouring the thirteen-point roadmap presented by Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee in May.

Yazidi leaders should take the following steps:

  • Agree on a new candidate for Sinjar district director (mayor), as a sign of Yazidi unity and Yazidi leaders’ commitment to help mediate political negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil;
  • Support the Yazidi members of the elected Sinjar district and sub-district councils until the next local elections. In the meantime, hammer out an agreement among all security actors deployed in Sinjar (Popular Mobilisation Units, Peshmerga and Yazidi militias) that would integrate their Yazidi fighters into the interior and defence ministries;
  • Support negotiation of a deal that would see the withdrawal of non-Yazidi militia commanders from civilian areas in Sinjar in exchange for the right (for now) to stay on the district’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi should continue the work of his predecessor in tackling the Sinjar question through an agreement with Erbil, and step up efforts to reach a security arrangement in Sinjar that includes the Popular Mobilisation Units.

The Abdul-Mahdi government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Negotiate an agreement to integrate members of all irregular security forces in Sinjar into Federal Police units in charge of protecting Sinjar district and sub-districts, to be placed on the interior ministry payroll;
  • Integrate local Yazidi fighters deployed on the Syria border into Iraqi army battalions also stationed there, and transfer them to the defence ministry payroll to reduce smuggling and their fealty to non-Yazidi commanders;
  • Negotiate with Kurdish leaders the return of the Sinjar district council and sub-district councils to Sinjar, and secure joint commitment to the National Reconciliation Committee’s thirteen-point roadmap. 

The president of Iraq should continue public commitment to addressing the case of Sinjar, including by seeing through completion of the National Reconciliation Committee’s roadmap by an agreed-upon deadline.

The Kurdistan Regional Government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Continue negotiations with Baghdad on the return of the Sinjar council and sub-district councils to Sinjar in exchange for supporting the merger of KDP-affiliated Yazidi forces into local Federal Police units and deploying Peshmerga only up to the checkpoint before the shortest route home for Yazidis displaced in Dohuk;
  • Reopen the Dohuk-Sinjar road to allow Yazidi civilians free movement in and out of Sinjar and to enable the displaced to go home.
Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners.

Iran and Popular Mobilisation Unit officials should agree on merging the Units’ Yazidi fighters under the authority and on the payroll of the interior and defence ministries, and otherwise withdrawing from Sinjar, in exchange for allowing non-Yazidi commanders continued access to Sinjar’s border with Syria (with the proviso that, eventually, the Iraqi army will reacquire full control over the border).

The U.S., EU and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq should take the following steps:

  • Facilitate Baghdad-Erbil dialogue on a mutually acceptable security arrangement for Sinjar that would consist of merging Yazidi fighters belonging to various militias with federal forces;
  • Work with the Sinjar district council to start UN-sponsored and other reconstruction programs;
  • Assist the National Reconciliation Committee in carrying out its thirteen-point roadmap for Sinjar;
  • Prepare the ground for free local council elections in Sinjar, ensuring representation of all communities. 

The Sinjar District Council (once it has come back to the district) should facilitate the return of all displaced Sinjar residents, including non-Yazidis, to their homes. With the help of the Baghdad and Erbil governments, as well as the UN, it should establish a mechanism for reconciliation between Sinjar Arabs and Yazidis (as well as other minorities that suffered at the hands of ISIS).

The UN, working with the National Reconciliation Committee, should lead Sinjar’s reconstruction in a way that takes into account inter-communal tensions and the risks involved in favouring one community over another, or giving that perception.

Now’s the Time

Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners. The pain of ISIS depredations is etched in Yazidis’ collective memory, leaving survivors with feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Unable to obtain justice by institutional means, many feel an impulse for vengeance. But things need not go that way. The moment presents an opportunity for a concerted push by local leaders in Sinjar to make overdue administrative and security changes in the district with the help of both the federal and Kurdish regional governments. If they succeed, they could turn Sinjar into a model for addressing the wider disputed territories question that has long divided Baghdad and Erbil.

This possibility, combined with knowledge that the calculations in Baghdad and Erbil may change, should prompt rapid action. The time is now to chart a new way forward for Sinjar.