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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
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?

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

Tishreen protester holds an Iraqi flag in Tayaran Square. Baghdad, 19 January 2020. PHOTOGRAPHER/Ali Dab Dab

Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?

Protests in 2019-2020 forced Iraq’s government to resign, parliament to adopt a new elections law and authorities to organise early elections, scheduled for 10 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Lahib Higel says ruling parties are vying for support amid apathy and low expectations.

What’s at stake in Iraq’s elections on 10 October? 

These elections are the first test of Iraq’s political institutions since countrywide protests paralysed the country in 2019-2020. Those protests forced the government elected in 2018 to step down and pass a new elections law, which brought the polls originally planned for 2022 forward by six months. The so-called Tishreen (October) protests were a serious warning that the ruling parties and political system face a growing legitimacy crisis. If the balloting unfolds in a free and fair manner, without major violence, it may restore a degree of confidence in electoral democracy. Ideally, the vote would produce a new government empowered to tackle the country’s enormous socio-economic challenges head on, but that outcome is unlikely.

Many Iraqis have a dim view of their country’s future, despite a period of relative calm since the military victory over ISIS in 2017. Corruption and weak governance are hindering the provision of even basic services like water or electricity. In the summer, no one dependent on the national grid can count on more than a few hours of electricity per day. When temperatures reach 50 degrees centigrade, only those who can afford a household generator can keep cool. Even those with generators have to monitor them carefully, as they are often not powerful enough to cool an entire whole house. In 2018, the water quality was so poor in Basra that more than 100,000 people had to be hospitalised. These conditions triggered unrest, which turned out to be the precursor of the 2019-2020 Tishreen protests. 

State violence used to crush these protests led to demands for an overhaul of the whole political order that has been in place since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Critically, protesters also expressed frustration with a key political change made after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. This change was the introduction of a Lebanon-style spoils system (known locally as muhasasa, Arabic for “apportionment”), which divvies up government and key state bureaucracy positions among the leaders of the main ethnic and religious groups. Though unpopular with the protesters, the system persists.

How great is popular interest in the new elections? 

Despite the great demand for change, popular interest in the elections is low. On television, the campaign is a race to the bottom, with politicians insulting their opponents and accusing one another of corruption. Each insists that he is the only leader able to save the country. On the road to Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul, campaign posters bedeck the entry and exit checkpoints outside every town. But political advertising is unlikely to convince people to turn out in great numbers to cast their ballots. Heavy state repression of the Tishreen protests left both those who had taken to the streets and those who had not with a sense of fear and disillusionment. Many have lost faith that the system can change at all, and few believe that the elections will shake up the establishment in any meaningful way. The 2018 polls were marred by widespread fraud. In the eyes of many Iraqis, corruption and mismanagement are too deeply rooted in the country’s politics for a better outcome to be possible. 

Personal safety is also an issue. In Baghdad, I met with members of a recently established political party that has fielded candidates for the elections but raised serious concerns about possible danger to them due to the party’s affiliation with the Tishreen movement. Some candidates have received anonymous handwritten notes or phone messages threatening them with harm if they do not withdraw.

A perception that the system is unfair ... diminishes voter enthusiasm

A perception that the system is unfair also diminishes voter enthusiasm. Iraq has no law that forces transparency in the way political parties raise and spend money, and many small parties suspect that their bigger rivals abuse their access to and control over state funds in ministries and other state institutions. The Iraqi Communist Party and several new parties originating in the Tishreen protests have decided to boycott the elections to protest this perceived unfairness and lack of personal safety.

For these and other reasons, large segments of the electorate may stay home on election day, though turnout is likely to vary by region. The lowest levels of participation are expected in the southern governorates that witnessed protests in 2019-2020. The strongest participation is expected in Kurdish areas, where fewer parties compete over fairly static patronage networks. Sunni Arab areas will likely fall in between, as reconstruction following the war with ISIS still tops the agenda there and many people may be motivated to vote for the parties that they think are most likely to invest in their areas.

What is the likely outcome of the poll?

The parties that are likely to do best in each ethno-sectarian group are the established ones. Among Shiites, the popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement are likely either to come out on top or, even if they fall short of expectations, to run neck and neck with their main rival, the Fateh alliance. The latter mainly comprises parties affiliated with the pro-Iran paramilitary groups of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation). Together with the State of Law Coalition of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, they were second largest parliamentary bloc in the 2018 elections. This time around, they may even be able to form the largest bloc, depending on post-election alliance building. Among Sunni Arabs, the main competition is between the Taqaddum Party of Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and the Azm Party of politician-cum-businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. The former is likely to enter into an alliance with Sadr and other centrist Shiite politicians such as cleric Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, while the latter is expected to support the Fateh alliance. Among the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masrour Barzani is expected to stay well ahead in the race.

If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

Similar to previous elections, it is already clear that no party or bloc will be able to secure an absolute majority of the 329 seats, so following the polls there will be yet another lengthy process of coalition building and government formation. In 2018, negotiations lasted eight months and resulted in a government that included all the above parties. Governing by broad coalition and the need to reach something close to consensus on major decisions caused administrative gridlock, often resulting in parliament not taking votes on legislation or hampering the government’s ability to take policy decisions. This impasse in turn helped trigger the Tishreen protests. If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

The election will also be a test of the new election law enacted after the Tishreen protests. This statute introduced a Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) to replace the old system based on party lists, which allowed political parties to fill seats representing their proportionate share of the vote with their preferred candidates, some of whom did not necessarily gain significant percentages of the popular vote. Iraq has also gone from having a single electoral district to having 83 districts. The candidates who garner the most votes in each district – each district elects between three to five legislators, depending on its size – will go to parliament in Baghdad. In principle, this new system might bring hope of greater accountability over time, because candidates will be closer to their constituencies and voters will be able to punish legislators who they believe have performed poorly. Yet SNTV can be quite unpredictable and hard to manage for political parties; it can also result in quite disproportionate results. Newly established parties may also face challenges, as they will likely struggle to field candidates who can vie for the voters of older parties in many small electoral districts.

Established parties have a big advantage in funds, access to media, organisational infrastructure and mobilising power. The new law is therefore not expected to have a big influence on the overall distribution of seats. As per the politically agreed-upon practice since 2005, the muhasasa system also means that a Shiite will have to be prime minister, a Kurd president and a Sunni Arab speaker of parliament, with similar distributions among parties taking place in the allocation of senior cabinet and administration posts.

What are the big issues that the new government will be facing with other governments in the region?

Iraq’s ambition to broker more stable relations among the powers around it was manifested by the conference it convened in Baghdad in August, which brought together neighbours and other regional countries for talks on greater cooperation. Many of them attended at the head-of-state level. But while the August conference was a positive step, any new government in Baghdad will have to keep treading a careful path between the far stronger states that surround it, which do not see eye to eye on much of anything.

From Iraq’s perspective, the most influential of these neighbours is Iran. Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, every government in Baghdad has needed the blessing of both Tehran and Washington to succeed. In 2018, for example, Iran and the U.S. compromised on the composition of Prime Minister Adil Abd-al-Mahdi’s government and, two years later, on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s interim government as well. The muhasasa system works in Iran’s favour, as the prime minister’s post is the most powerful in the Iraqi system and a Shiite must fill it. Not all Iraqi Shiite politicians are amenable to Iranian influence, but Tehran’s clout has undoubtedly been growing steadily since 2003. The new, more conservative government in Iran may push for a prime minister in Baghdad who leans farther away from the U.S. and will accelerate negotiations aimed at a full withdrawal of U.S. troops – including trainers and advisers (discussed below) – which is a major Iranian objective.

To Iraq’s north is Turkey, which is increasingly worried about the growth inside Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has been fighting the Turkish army for nearly four decades. Ankara will be looking for a government it can do business with and in particular one that will not block Turkish forces from carrying out continuous attacks on PKK and affiliated camps along Iraq’s northern border. Most worrying to some in Baghdad, the range of Turkish airstrikes has been creeping southward, especially in the last year, prompting Shiite parties aligned with the Hashd al-Shaabi network of paramilitary groups to condemn the strikes as an infringement upon Iraqi sovereignty. The Hashd groups work closely with the PKK and pro-PKK parties, among other things to ensure that they will continue to have full access to the Syrian border, which the PKK partly controls.

[The Gulf Arab States] will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony.

To Iraq’s south are the Gulf Arab states, which remain deeply concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and the Middle East. They will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony that was in evidence at the Baghdad conference in August.

How has U.S. influence fared in Iraq, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

The U.S. was the dominant player in Iraq after 2003 but has been losing ground, especially to Iran, ever since withdrawing most of its troops in 2011. The anti-ISIS fight brought back some U.S. soldiers in 2014, incongruously working in tacit concert with pro-Iranian paramilitaries, but their continued presence became politically controversial after the jihadists’ territorial defeat three years later. The last round of strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington in July produced agreement that all U.S. combat forces will depart by the end of 2021, leaving only trainers and advisers.

The new government will face two thorny questions relating to what remains of the U.S. military presence. The first is whether the U.S.-led coalition’s adjusted mandate will enable government forces to contain ISIS or other Sunni Islamist militants, should they resurge. Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS remains active today, carrying out attacks on security forces in the central provinces of Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Diyala. In just two ambushes in September, ISIS fighters killed thirteen members of the Iraqi security forces. The full U.S. withdrawal in 2011 was followed three years later by the takeover of one third of Iraq by ISIS, forcing Washington to send some U.S. troops back. This time, by contrast, trainers and advisers as well as air support will remain.

The second question is how the government will handle countervailing domestic pressures on the U.S. to withdraw all its remaining forces. This demand is strongest among the Hashd groups aligned with Iran, especially after the January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s expeditionary Qods force, and Hashd leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. But it is resisted by others, especially the Kurdish parties. It remains to be seen whether the Iran-aligned groups will accept the government’s agreement with the U.S. to keep trainers and advisers in Iraq after withdrawing its combat troops. Some of these groups have been implicated in attacks on U.S. forces in 2021 and have also been on the receiving end of U.S. retaliatory strikes. Further violent incidents may thus occur involving paramilitary groups and Iraqi bases on which U.S. personnel are co-located. While the absence of agreement between the U.S. and Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal suggests the likelihood of further attacks, restoration of the agreement will not automatically lead to the end of hostilities, as some Iraqi paramilitary groups’ very raison d’être is to resist the U.S. military presence and Iran may not exert full control over these groups.