Reconciliation between Baghdad and Erbil key to Iraqi counterterrorism efforts — INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS REVIEW


On December 9, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The US-led Coalition Against ISIS, together with the ground military campaigns of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iran-backed Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias, reclaimed Iraqi territory and pushed the Islamic State underground. These military efforts effectively relegated the group to a low-level insurgency, deprived of the territorial sovereignty and strategic territorial bases needed to plan and conduct major operations. However, the dynamic that ease the rise of the Islamic State continues to plague Iraq today, particularly sectarianism, state-sanctioned violence by security forces, and a factionalized security sector. The ongoing dispute between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central government is exacerbating these fissures, forcing the United States to mediate and resolve the political impasse to prevent the re-emergence of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State is exploiting security loopholes spawned by the long-running political dispute between Erbil and Baghdad to undermine local governance, escalate sectarian tensions and degrade Iraqi and Kurdish military forces. The Islamic State is particularly active in the disputed territories of the provinces of Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Diyala. On November 27, 2021, an anonymous peshmerga leader confirmed ISIS carried out more than 200 attacks between January and November 2021 in the disputed territories, resulting in the deaths of more than 350 people. As the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iran-backed Shia militias continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations against ISIS, the existing tensions and competition between these different security elements inhibit Iraq’s ability to fight the Islamic State. These tensions have deep roots in Iraqi political development after 2003 and intensified after the 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence.

Baghdad and Erbil have seemingly irreconcilable differences in disputed territories. Erbil look for to annex and integrate the districts and localities populated by Kurds into the Kurdish regional government. Conversely, Baghdad wants to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and prevent any attempt by the KRG to annex these disputed areas. While political status and demographic composition are key aspects of the dispute, the region’s oil fields make the territories vital to the KRG and the central Iraqi government. In 2014, the Islamic State occupied the disputed territories and incorporated them into the caliphate, expelling the Iraqi armed forces from the areas. The Kurdish peshmerga liberated these areas, provided security and, most notably, established control over oil-rich Kirkuk. On September 25, 2017, KRG Chairman Masoud Barzani held a Kurdish independence referendum that included Kirkuk and the other disputed territories, prompting Iraqi military action.

After the referendum, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) units participated in Baghdad’s campaign to retake disputed territories from Kurdish security forces. Consequently, these Shia militias have consolidated their security footprint and extended their influence in the region to the detriment of ethnic harmony and security cooperation. Recent events highlight the danger of Iranian-backed Shiite militias entrenching themselves in these territories. Iraqi security official says Iran-backed proxies spear eight rockets hit peshmerga positions near Kirkuk days before the first post-election session of parliament on January 9. Shia political parties supported by Iran suffered a disastrous defeat in the recent legislative elections on October 10, considerably reducing their political influence in future negotiations on the formation of the government. However, despite this new political decline, the militias still have considerable military capabilities to pressure their political rivals. The rocket attack was apparently an effort to dissuade Kurdish political parties from excluding Iranian-backed Shiite political parties from the government formation process. The attack demonstrated the willingness of Shia militias to subordinate immediate Iraqi national security (anti-ISIS) interests to the pursuit of selfish and selfish political goals.

The peshmerga should not have to face attacks by ostensible Iraqi state weapons, especially given the central role of the peshmerga in the fight against ISIS remnants in disputed territories. Additionally, Iranian-backed PMF units, as well as the Iraqi Armed Forces, conduct counterterrorism operations against ISIS in the Hamrin Mountains of Diyala Province. Fighting between security forces diverts much-needed resources, degrades the capabilities of potential partners, and perpetuates the instability that ISIS needs to thrive and revive. Counter-terrorism efforts would be better supported by close cooperation between the various security organs. However, political differences between Baghdad and Erbil, along with decades of mistrust, have stifled any efforts to conduct joint operations or delineate respective security outposts.

In addition to competition between Iraq’s myriad security institutions, the presence of Iran-backed Shia militias in these multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian areas has the potential to rekindle sectarian grievances and tensions, key factors in the initial rise of the IS. in power. On October 27, Islamic State fighters ambushed and massacre 11 Shia civilians in the village of al-Rashad in Diyala province, inciting local Shia populations to retaliate against unaffiliated Sunni villagers in the nearby village of Nahr al-Imam. Shia tribesmen and fighters associated with Iran-backed PMF militias are reported to have participated in the attack, raising fears of a potential cycle of escalating violence. Many Sunni populations experimented violence at the hands of Iran-backed Shiite militias during the war against ISIS. The continued targeting, intimidation and forced displacement of Sunni populations by these groups will only rekindle the grievances that sustained the Islamic State in the first place. Therefore, the United States must address the underlying issues that foster terrorism and avoid the ad hoc counterterrorism policies of previous administrations.

The United States and international agencies such as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) should play a mediating role in resolving these disputes. First, the United States and UNAMI can facilitate negotiations and encourage the Kurdish and Iraqi sides to establish mutually agreed security outposts. The absence of major Kurdish and ISF outposts gives ISIS carte blanche to terrorize local populations and carry out attacks on security forces. It would also require the establishment of joint operations centers that could communicate intentions, minimize mistrust, and ensure that one security institution does not perceive the movements of the other as inherently threatening or encroaching. The Iraqi government and the peshmerga have already considered similar initiatives, but have not carried them out. The United States and UNAMI should also encourage political negotiations alongside security talks, especially since the dispute is fundamentally rooted in the legal status of the disputed territories. The potential formation of a new Iraqi government with reduced Iranian influence provides an opportune moment to reduce the Shiite militia footprint in disputed areas, deploy professionalized divisions of the Iraqi Armed Forces, and engage in serious negotiations with Erbil. While the United States rightly focuses on the activities of Shia militias in Iraq, counterterrorism vis-à-vis the Islamic State remains a fundamental national security interest, and Baghdad-Erbil reconciliation will serve this purpose. interest.

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