Does this mean war yet?
After last month's controversial Kurdistan referendum in northern Iraq, both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil vowed to do everything possible to avoid direct military confrontation, even as the Iraq central government took aggressive steps to isolate Kurdistan after the pro-independence "yes" vote. But as many predicted, clashes are now underway near the disputed and oil-rich Kirkuk province between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shia milita forces (PMU, Popular Mobilization Units) backing the central Iraqi government.
Last night fighting erupted in Khurmatu - a city which lies in a disputed area claimed by Kurdistan just south of Kirkuk. Kurdistan media is claiming that amidst the fighting 70 Kurdish families were expelled from their homes by pro-Baghdad Shiite militias.
Below is possibly the first footage to emerge from the front line clashes between Kurdish and pro-Baghdad forces:
— Lawk Ghafuri (@LawkGhafuri) October 13, 2017
Kirkuk has long been a potential flash point as it lies on the "border" of the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region and as it produces 10% of Iraq's total oil. Things especially intensified after last month's vote when Baghdad demanded all oil and military facilities be handed over to the central government, after which Kurdish forces rallied to fortify their positions within Kirkuk city, which they see as fundamentally Kurdish in identity, though the population includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrian Christians, Sunnis and Shiites. This week the Iraqi government began staging forces outside the contested city, while also allying with Iran along Iraq's eastern border to impose a full land and air blockade on all territory claimed by the KRG.
Hadi al-Amiri, a PMU commander, issued an ultimatum this week, saying “I call on our brothers of the peshmerga to hand over these areas and not to drag the country into internal war." At the same time Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismissed reports of an impending Iraqi attack on Kurdistan as “fake news” with a “deplorable agenda.”
Iraqi officials tried to downplay this week's amassing of pro-government forces around Kirkuk as related to securing the nearby town of Hawijah - recently recovered from ISIS terrorists. But it appears the once Arab-Kurdish unified front against the Islamic State has now turned into war for the post-ISIS spoils as well as for the future of competing notions of sovereignty. Earlier in the week Abadi told Iraqi lawmakers that that he vows to “enforce the rule of the federal authority in the Kurdish region with the power of the constitution,” while adding that he rejects the notion of “a fight between the Iraqi citizens.”
Our armed forces cannot and will not attack our citizens, whether Arab or Kurd. The fake news being spread has a deplorable agenda behind it
— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) October 13, 2017
But both oil and ethnic tensions will likely cause - as has been the historical case - tensions to further develop into local and regional clashes among militias. By the numbers, the KRG controls oil production of up to about 900,000 barrels per day out of Iraq's total 4.35 million barrels per day (b/d), and Kurdistan's energy reserves are estimated around 45 billion barrels of oil and 150 trillion cubic meter of gas, and it exports around 600.000 b/d via Turkey. Kirkuk is key to production for both sides currently clashing, and Turkey has remained the northern Iraq region's only lifeline in terms of exports (and food imports).
To the surprise of many analysts, Turkey has allowed Kurdistan oil to continue to flow - despite constant threats from Ankara to shut down Kurdish exports. The Iraqi government has made formal requests for all neighboring countries to boycott Kurdistan and is now signaling that it plans to revive a major pipeline - previously destroyed by ISIS - which would bypass Kurdistan altogether. The pipeline, which Baghdad says it will immediately take steps to repair and restore, runs from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in southern Turkey.
This of course means control of Kirkuk is all the more important should Baghdad wish to squeeze the KRG into submission and conforming to Iraq's demands that Kurdistan repeal its independence referendum. For now, all signs point to incremental clashes leading to broader conflict.