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Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line
Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line

As sectarian violence in Iraq has ebbed over the past year, a new and potentially just as destructive political conflict has arisen between the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil.

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Executive Summary

As sectarian violence in Iraq has ebbed over the past year, a new and potentially just as destructive political conflict has arisen between the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil. This conflict has manifested itself in oratory, backroom negotiations and military manoeuvres in disputed territories, raising tensions and setting off alarm bells in Washington just as the Obama administration is taking its first steps to pull back U.S. forces. A lasting solution can only be political – involving a grand bargain on how to divide or share power, resources and territory – but in the interim both sides should take urgent steps to improve communications and security cooperation, run joint military checkpoints and patrols in disputed territories and refrain from unilateral steps along the new, de facto dividing line, the so-called trigger line.

The conflict is centred on disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, which not only hosts a mix of populations – Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans and smaller minorities (which in some districts are dominant) – but also contains untold reserves of oil and gas. In the security vacuum of post-invasion Iraq, Kurdish forces rushed across the Green Line, the de facto boundary separating the Kurdistan region from the rest of Iraq between 1991 and 2003, to assert their claim to areas they deem part of their historic patrimony. A range of local and national actors challenged this claim, with the government of Prime Minister Maliki starting to push back against Kurdish influence in these areas since August 2008.

The result has been a steady rise in tensions along a new, undemarcated line that in military circles is referred to as the trigger line – a curve stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border, where at multiple places the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters known as peshmergas are arrayed in opposing formations. The deployment of the army’s 12th division in Kirkuk in late 2008, in particular, enraged the Kurds and emboldened their Arab and Turkoman rivals.

Given growing tensions and the proximity of forces, as well as unilateral political moves by both sides in the form of contracts for oil and gas extraction, altercations have occurred along the trigger line on several occasions. Poor communication could cause such local events to escalate inadvertently into broader conflict that neither party might find easy to contain. The Obama administration responded to the 12th division’s arrival by sending an extra brigade into Kirkuk, which may have prevented a very tense situation from turning into open warfare. But U.S. influence inevitably is on the wane.

Given President Obama’s repeated and unequivocal pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, with combat troops departing as early as August 2010, there is little time left for effective U.S. mediation: both the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government will be averse to compromise on fundamental issues ahead of legislative elections scheduled for January 2010; and some Iraqis, including Kurdish leaders, anticipating Iraq’s collapse, could seek outside protection, thus potentially regionalising the conflict.

If the U.S. administration wishes to leave Iraq without being forced either to maintain a significant military presence or, worse, to return after the country disintegrates, it should craft an exit strategy that both encourages and pressures Iraqis to reach a series of political bargains. These deals, as Crisis Group has consistently argued, concern a federal hydrocarbons law, a settlement over Kirkuk and other disputed territories and agreement over the division of powers that jointly would pave the way for consensus on amending the constitution. In the interim, it should take urgent steps to help Baghdad and Erbil improve their mutual communications and security cooperation in disputed territories and persuade them to engage in substantive negotiations on the status of these areas. At the same time, it cannot exclude finding itself, against U.S. military commanders’ better judgment, standing between the two sides to prevent armed escalation.

Along with its own efforts, the U.S. should provide full support to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), whose report on disputed internal boundaries, issued in April 2009, could offer an important platform for negotiations on disputed territories and, in a grand bargain strategy, on the interlocking issues of power and resources as well. UNAMI is best placed to mediate the complex discussions that will be required but cannot succeed without U.S. muscle, if Iraqi stakeholders are to be pushed to reach a durable settlement.

Whatever the final terms of deals and however difficult it may be to reach them, forgoing them is no option. Without the glue that U.S. troops have provided, Iraq’s political actors are otherwise likely to fight all along the trigger line following a withdrawal, emboldened by a sense they can prevail, if necessary with outside help. The Obama administration should make sure that the peace it leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush’s war of choice turn into its own war of necessity. The president’s late June decision to appoint Vice President Joseph Biden as his informal special envoy for Iraq, Biden’s focus on helping Iraqis reach political deals and support for UNAMI, as well as his subsequent visit to Iraq all point in the right direction. The test is whether there will be sufficient determination, persistence and follow-through.

Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels, 8 July 2009

Mutanabbi Street on a Friday afternoon. 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Baghdad

Despite their traumatic history, Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to their country’s political failures. Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy visited Baghdad in October-November 2018 and returned with portraits of its people’s search for normalcy.

Iraq has endured decades of sanctions, war, invasion, regime change and dysfunctional government. These span Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and crippling UN sanctions throughout the 1990s. Those difficult years gave way to the traumas of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath, which brought the insurgents of the Islamic State to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 2014.

While governments form and collapse behind the blast walls of Baghdad’s Green Zone, life in the rest of the city has grown resilient to the disruptions of politics. Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to collective problems that politicians and state are failing to address.

Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy joined our Senior Iraq Adviser Maria Fantappie in the city in October and November 2018. Her images portray a people whose public spaces – main streets, coffee houses and marketplaces – bear the scars of all its upheavals. But they also communicate Iraqis’ ambition to overcome them and capture moments in their search for normalcy against enormous odds.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

It’s late October 2018, and the new prime minister is forming his government. He is promising meaningful reform to a dysfunctional political system. This change is hard to imagine, since political actors and rules of the game remain largely the same. The next ruling coalition is likely to be a “government of enemies”, one of our interlocutors tells us. But the streets of Baghdad feel distant and indifferent to the details of the struggle for power within Iraq’s narrow political elite.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet, is the heart of Baghdad’s book trade. Even at peaks of violence and political crisis, Fridays here have remained a melting pot for Iraqis of all backgrounds. Enjoying calmer hours on this Muslim day of prayer and rest, booksellers in the pedestrian zone mix with vendors of tea, songbirds, street food and antiques.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a bird in Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street. The buyer then frees the bird, believing this will avert the evil eye of bad fortune and bring good luck to the bird’s liberator.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraqis born after 2000 have grown up in a city divided by checkpoints and the invisible walls erected by sectarian conflict. From northern Iraqi Kurdistan to southern Basra, whatever their sect or ethnicity, young people share similar grievances and seek rights as citizens. But political participation among young Iraqis is still overshadowed by a legacy of division and parochial politics.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Shahbander Coffeehouse in Mutanabbi Street reflects Iraq’s resilience. Open since 1917, the coffeehouse outlasted a deadly bombing in 2007 and has preserved many architectural features of old Baghdad. Despite the city’s volatility, its owners take pride in hosting several generations of established and aspiring intellectuals.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

An image of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most contentious figures in post-2003 politics, hangs on a Baghdad street corner. The Shiite cleric moves in and out of Green Zone politics. He led calls for the formation of a militia that fought against the U.S. occupation in 2004-2008. His Sa’iroun electoral list won 54 seats in the May 2018 elections, the largest number of seats of any party. The Sadrist movement has proved canny at capitalising on the changing moods of the Iraqi street.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A Friday morning walk in Mutanabbi Street.

1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Inside the walls of the Green Zone where senior politicians operate, the formation of the latest government continues. On 2 October, Adel Abdul Mahdi was tasked with forming a cabinet. On 24 October, several technocrats were sworn in as new ministers and charged with important reforms. Yet the survival of this government, as with those that preceded it, still hinges on maintaining a balance of power between ethnic and religious groups and fragile coexistence between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Though widely underrepresented in government, women are a leading force in civil society. Initiatives here are trying to shape new policy agenda focused on society’s needs rather than the self-serving interests of politicians. But civic-minded activists and politicians remain disconnected, blocking the way for new figures and new ideas to be channelled into decision-making.

4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Baghdad’s millennials are the beating heart of citizen-led initiatives. Civil society has grown more vibrant as politicians fail to resolve the challenges affecting people’s daily lives, whether ending the economic crisis or preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Civil society groups are prioritising issues often neglected by politicians, including family law, ecology, urbanisation and archaeological conservation.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When we ask ordinary Iraqis about what they expect from the new government during informal conversations, their answers frequently highlight their continuing distrust of politics and politicians. People want reforms that have a direct, positive impact on their everyday lives.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 has reduced violence, but Iraqis still have to cope with an economic crisis aggravated by the fall of oil prices. Iraq remains completely dependent on oil revenues, which feed a bloated public sector. The private sector, far from rewarding independent business owners, remains an extension of the politicians’ patronage network.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A family prepares for an evening outing on the Tigris. In the summer of 2018, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply almost all of the country’s drinking and agricultural water, fell to the lowest levels in living memory. Water shortages provoked a series of riots in Basra during the summer heat in mid-2018. Iraqi officials blame Turkey and Iran for drawing off too much water from both rivers and their tributaries but still do not consider water management a policy priority.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The sun sets over the Tigris River running through Baghdad.