Small Wars Journal

The Kurds and the Future of Iraq

The Kurds and the Future of Iraq

By Captain Timothy Hsia

Iraq today is at a critical juncture which could mark the beginning of further stabilization or increased internecine struggle. The surge of troops has created additional breathing room for the Nouri Al-Maliki government and General Petraeus' leadership has greatly assisted in ensuring a more peaceful and secure Iraq. For the past two years, Iraq has been the scene of multiple sectarian battles between Sunnis and Shia, and internally within the two sects. The Sunni insurgency has died down as the Sons of Iraq (or Concerned Local Citizens) have turned against foreign jihadists and extremist Sunni groups. Similarly the Shia internal struggle has been won by Maliki and the Government of Iraq over Moktada Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

The next phase of the Iraq war could become less of a sectarian struggle and more of an ethnic conflict. The inability of Iraq's parliament to resolve the situation in Kirkuk and the threat of violence in Khanaqin has highlighted the unresolved pressing issue of the Kurdish people and its Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

The current Iraq war has strengthened the Kurdish people as it has demographically consolidated the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq. Kurdish peoples displaced to Northern Iraq because they were now free to return to their ancestral homes after being evicted previously by Saddam and also because they were seeking refuge from regions besieged by sectarian violence. Simultaneously, the KRG has lured Kurdish people back to the Kurdish heartland in Northern Iraq with promises of land, wages, and security. Estimates today of the total population of Kurdish people living in the Middle East ranges around 30 million people. Based off these numbers, the Kurdish people are often described as the largest ethnic minority without a country. Hitherto, the Kurdish region has been comparatively stabile due to its homogenous demographics. And currently the Kurdish provinces in Northern Iraq enjoy a level of economic prosperity and political autonomy unmatched by any other region within Iraq.


Iraq's provincial elections will not be held this year due to disagreements over the fate of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is Iraq's fourth largest city with a population of about 700,000. Kurds adamantly believe that Kirkuk should be governed under the KRG. However, Kirkuk is also highly coveted by Turkoman and Iraqi Arabs. Although Sunnis and Shias disagree on a preponderance of issues, the one thing that unites them is their staunch opposition to a perceived expansion of Kurdish influence, and a possible Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk has become a rallying cry for Arabs opposed to Kurdish expansion. As a result of the internal disagreements within the country concerning Kirkuk, the Iraqi government has grinded to a standstill affecting a broad range of issues from oil contracts and how revenues will be disbursed to new provincial elections.

Kirkuk is desired by all parties mainly because of the revenues which will be generated once the oil rich city begins pumping its vast oil reservoir. As a result, Kirkuk has become a symbol of the political struggle over defining the limits of federalism within Iraq. Will the central government in Baghdad be able to peacefully govern the Kurdish region, and which has had de facto independence since 1991? Or will the Kurds proudly wave their own flag and chafe under the current Iraqi government much as it did under Saddam's rule?

Turkey and Iran

Today's Kurds find themselves straddling the borders of four countries: Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. All four countries have sought to stifle the Kurdish people's attempt to expand geographically. Nonetheless the Kurds seem more than ever determined to one day establish an independent Kurdistan despite the attempts by these countries to limit Kurdish expansion.

The Turkish government stands the most to lose if the KRG seeks to become a country. Turkey's less populated eastern areas has a sizable population of Kurdish minority who might choose to leave Turkey or assist Kurdish independence. The Turkish government has responded to alleged Kurdish terrorist activities by launching air attacks and indirect fires on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and on groups associated with the PKK. Turkey has also closed its borders with Iraq on several occasions in order to eliminate lines of communication between Kurdish groups operating within Turkey and their logistical bases in Northern Iraq. The Turkish government is also sympathetic to the cause of the Turkomans in Kirkuk, and wish to avoid having Turkomans in Kirkuk marginalized by the more populous Kurdish people and the KRG.

While the Iraqi government has denounced Turkey's forays in Northern Iraq, there is little which the Iraqi government can do to limit Turkish military activity. The Iraqi military simply does not have the military means and capabilities to influence or eliminate PKK strongholds with forces already spread out from Basra in the far south to Sadr City and upwards to the Diyala province. Furthermore, the government in Baghdad has little to no soft power influence in Kurdish regions in Northern Iraq. Kirkuk's economic success will also hinge largely on Turkey, as the pipeline from Kirkuk to the West runs through Turkey to the port at Ceyhan. If relations sour between the KRG and Turkey then Turkey could quickly destabilize the KRG by imposing economic sanctions and by halting oil flow across the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline.

The Kurdish border problems in Northern Iraq include not just Turkey but also Iran. This past June the Associated Press reported that Turkey and Iran had united forces to attack Kurdish rebels. A Turkish general was reported as stating that "We are sharing intelligence with Iran, we are talking, we are coordinating."Syria too has vocally supported Turkey's assaults against Kurdish rebels. Iranian and Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces are not simply the problems of the KRG. Any attack on the KRG is also an attack on Iraqi sovereign soil.


Since the fall of Saddam, the Kurds have greatly expanded and improved the Peshmerga, its army. The Peshmerga have moved into trouble spots such as Mosul in hopes of expanding its sphere of influence. Nonetheless, the Peshmerga are deeply distrusted by non-Kurdish Iraqis. The Iraqi government has yet to deploy forces into the KRGs provinces for fear that it would unnecessarily escalate violence between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga.

The very existence of the Peshmerga in Iraq raises serious questions as to how the Iraqi government can tolerate an armed force independent of its control. United countries do not have two armies or with one army that answers only to a regional government. The Peshmerga are not a ragtag army but are a seasoned force whose professionalism, discipline, logistical abilities, and fighting power rival that of the Iraqi Army. Iraqi Security Forces mirror the deep anxiety shared by Iraqi Arabs in that they are equally distrustful of the Peshmerga, and assume Peshmerga activity in any locale is an attempt to exert Kurdish influence. American forces however are not biased against Peshmerga forces and oftentimes work in conjunction with them in areas such as Mosul where they find them to be competent partners in arms.

Recent events in the city of Khanaqin highlight the tension and danger with having two armies in one country. Khanaqin located in the Western portion of the Diyala province near the Iranian border is a disputed city much like Kirkuk. The Kurdish presence in Khanaqin included not only Peshmerga troops but also the Kurdish intelligence service, Asayesh. Although geographically separated from the Kurdish region the city is predominately populated by Kurdish people. Khanaqin located in the Diyala province is an oddity in terms of demographics as the province as a whole is an Arab dominated region. Peshmerga forces had already been stationed in the surrounding region, the Hamrin basin area, and the arrival of Iraqi Army soldiers escalated the possibility of conflict between the two forces. The potential for a civil war to begin in Khanaqin cannot be understated. Peshmerga forces occupied positions and traffic control points which were down the road from where Iraqi Army Soldiers manned.

Violence in Khanaqin could not only have started a civil war but would have also destabilized border relations between Iran as it is situated near the Iran-Iraq border. More ominously, the recent Khanaqin episode could easily have been exploited by insurgent groups whom are focused on destabilize the country. For example, an Improvised Explosive Device or unclaimed ambush against either side could easily have propelled the other military force to claim that the other side had directly sought to attack them through subterfuge or proxy forces. An incident like the above example did happen on September 14th as reported by the New York Times when eight Kurdish soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb. Fortunately this was an isolated incident which did not provoke any action by the Peshmerga against Arab citizens or the Iraqi Army.

The recent events in Khanaqin could perhaps simply be a strategic gambit by the KRG to overreach. By claiming Khanaqin now, the KRG can later appear more accommodating and compromising in future debates concerning Kirkuk. The KRG would be far more —to cede Khanaqin than Kirkuk which is by far the economically desirable of the two cities. Nonetheless, Khanaqin's geographic location makes it conducive for any defensive force coming from central Iraq as the Hamrin Mountains provide any attacking force very few avenues of approach into the city.

Regional Government or Separate Government?

The Asayesh like the Peshmerga are not beholden to the Iraqi central government but rather the KRG. The KRG's government apparatus is unmatched compared to Iraq's other provinces or regions. On September 18th 2008, the KRG's Minister of Foreign Relations wrote a letter in the Washington Post concerning the security situation in Khanaqin and voiced his displeasure with the central government by stating that "The KRG is fully committed to a peaceful, democratic and federal Iraq, but we reject such intimidation from the prime minister." The very existence of a minister for foreign relations seems to emphasize the KRG's solidarity and complete autonomy from the government in Baghdad.

Kurdish authorities have also negotiated separate contracts with Western oil companies. These contracts flouted central government laws which required the KRG to cede to the Iraqi central government in dealings related to oil contracts. These separate oil contracts have only confirmed many Arabs view that the Kurds are focused on expanding their wealth and also their blatant disregard for the rule of the central government. The KRG also benefits greatly by positioning its own lobbyists in Washington and in other major foreign capitals. The KRG's ability to shape its own foreign policy agenda is unmatched by a regional government within Iraq, and to a larger degree for any regional government on the globe.

The Past and the Future

At the end of the 20th century, the Kurdish people faced a dilemma akin to the Polish people in the 19th century. The Kurds were surrounded by great powers; Iran, Saddam Hussein, and a westernized Turkish military. Moreover they had no real allies and could not rely on western support. Hence, the Kurdish people's dreams of independence quickly turned into a nightmare of gas attacks and an absence of foreign aid. Although much has changed in the Middle East in the past five years, the Kurdish situation has not. Turkey, Iraq, and Iran all continue to seek to prevent an independent Kurdistan.

The United States today does not have a consistent policy as to the future of the KRG. The current goal of strengthening the central government oftentimes runs counter to assisting the Kurdish people. To many policy makers the Kurdish state of affairs seems to be a zero sum game, when the Kurdish position strengthens, the power of the Baghdad government wanes. The Kurds have nonetheless positioned themselves so that whatever the outcome of the KRG, they will be at a minimum able to influence their future. They have done this by hedging their expansionist efforts with ensuring that the politically astute Jalal Talabani remains entrenched within the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and thus have hedged their bets of regional expansionist efforts. The United States will most likely seek to avoid jeopardizing its historical alliance with Turkey and thus dissuade the Kurdish people from seeking greater autonomy. At first glance it would also that it would serve the US interests to limit Kurdish efforts to expand into Iran, as this action could also jeopardize negotiations with Iran concerning closing down its nuclear weapons program.

The Kurdish people are wary of American support and have learned from the first Persian Gulf War that any expectation of assistance would be foolish. Currently, America's priorities in the region do not align with the KRG. The political and military realities on the ground are not favorable to a Kurdish state. However, culturally the United States and the West have much more in common with the Kurdish people then with the vast majority of states in the region. Despite the lack of clear American support for greater Kurdish autonomy, one should not be surprised if the Kurdish people independently launch an effort to create an independent state. Momentum has been gradually building within the Kurdish community to establish statehood. And if this happens, volatility in the Middle East could increase as Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey would most likely take steps to quash an independent Kurdistan.