Iraq's security heart is still troubled

There are contradictory views between Baghdad and Erbil towards the disputed areas.

Recently, several military delegations from Erbil and Baghdad have met to discuss the security situation in the disputed areas. However, those meetings did not reach any effective measures to ensure the security of these areas. Indeed, the language of doubts between Erbil and Baghdad dominated during those talks. This will impact the future of stability in this geostrategically important part of Iraq.

These places are so important for Daech (the Islamic State). They are vast, rich, and uncontrolled by Baghdad or Erbil.  In 2014, Daech managed to extend its hegemony from there to the other regions, and so it controlled 40% of Iraq's territories. In these zones, Daech has lately started new movements to affirm its presence. In 2018, it carried out more than 456 terrorist operations that killed more than 1742 people. It did the same in the early of 2019 when it launched more than 100 terrorist attacks that led to the killing of more than 407 citizens, according to the Secretary-General of the ministry of Peshmerga Jabar Yawar.

Erbil has many times accused Baghdad of being behind many of the negative events taking place in these ranges. Several Kurdish politicians have said that the federal forces hold the responsibility of returning Daech to these areas. They affirm that these forces have not been able to impose control over this geography, which includes many places near and around the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, and Mosul.  Additionally, they insist that there is a space of 40 km separating between the Kurdish forces and the federal ones and exploited by Daech to freely move in this large area. Therefore, Erbil assures that its participation in filling this gap is the only way to secure these parts.  

To achieve this goal, Erbil has taken many important steps in the last few months. It sent an official message to the federal ministry of defense urging its leaders to restore the mutual coordination of their military operations in the disputed areas. It also called for the establishment of a security and military coordination center and for putting a detailed map showing the distribution of the areas where the Peshmerga and the federal forces must be deployed.

Erbil, which lost its formal presence in the disputed areas in the aftermath of its failed referendum of independence from Iraq in September 2017, is now trying to revive its role there with clear US backing.

Kurdish leaders always meet with the US Consul in Erbil and discuss the Kurdish need to coordinate with Baghdad and the international coalition of countering terrorism, led by the US, in order to rearrange the situations in these places.

This conviction forms a vital view for both Erbil and Washington, which are looking to undermine the function played by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), which is backed by Iran there. Erbil and Washington are presently planning to exclude these Shiite forces from the disputed areas, as they are accused of carrying out the Iranian agenda there against the US interests.

Baghdad, for its part, thinks that these areas must be kept away from any sorts of Kurdish domination. It believes that the Kurds have extended far beyond the official borders of their region, which includes four provinces: Erbil, al-Sulaimani, Duhok, and Halabja.

Baghdad managed to impose its word there, especially in the rich oil city of Kirkuk, in a way that caused the inconvenience of Erbil and its allies. Therefore, there are no indications today that Baghdad is ready to make any concessions in this regard, as it fears that the Kurds will insist again on their separation from Iraq if they control this territory.

Baghdad argues that the Kurdish plan is based on the annexation of Kirkuk city to the assumed Kurdistan state for different geopolitical reasons; therefore, it will do every possible thing to prevent the Kurds from reaching this dream.

The PMFs will never tolerate any Kurdish attempt to return the Peshmerga to the disputed areas. Many Shiite leaders have confirmed that they liberated this part of Iraq from Daech and lost many souls for achieving this aim. Thus, they will not give any opportunity for the Kurds or their allies to return the clock back. Many observers say that Iran stands strongly behind this position, as it harms the US interests.

In sum, there are contradictory views between Baghdad and Erbil towards the disputed areas. Each side looks at this matter from the perspective of its interests and its regional allies. Baghdad believes that this part of Iraq must not be under the authority of the Kurdistan region. In turn, Erbil considers this region as a geopolitical prize that cannot be overlooked.

Between Baghdad and Erbil, the fate of these areas continues to be volatile. Till now, we have not seen any retreat in the views of either side nor have we heard that there would be concrete steps between them to cooperate for the security of this region. In fact, the problem of these areas can explode at any future time as long as these powers insist on their previous directions.

Diyari Salih is an Iraqi academic with a Ph.D. in Political Geography from the University of Baghdad and a Post-Doctorate in International Relations from the University of Warsaw. His research focuses on geopolitical issues in Iraq. He tweets at @DiyariFaily