Kurdish Land-Grab Stuns Baghdad

Peshmerga
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters keep watch during the battle with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Mosul January 21, 2015. Azad Lashkari/Reuters

Kurdish forces launched a barrage of Grad missiles against Islamic State (Isis) positions inside Mosul last week, for the first time since Isis overran Iraq's second-largest city in June last year, marking a dramatic shift in the Kurds' battle against the terrorist group.

The bombardment was preceded by a large-scale Kurdish operation against Isis in northern Iraq, which saw 5,000 Kurdish fighters, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes, sweep around Mosul to recapture an area larger than the size of Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino combined.

In the offensive, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters killed over 200 Isis militants, ousting the group from almost 300 square miles of territory, capturing a number of areas contested with Baghdad. As they advanced, encircling Mosul on three sides and cutting vital Isis supply lines to the nearby towns of Tal Afar and Sinjar, the Kurdish forces began a counter-offensive that analysts worry may be the start of a territory war between the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and Baghdad.

The Kurdish forces captured Makhmour, to the east of the city; the towns of Zimar and Wannah, and several Arab villages located in the Sinjar Mountains, west of Mosul; and the area around Mosul Dam, in what amounts to a Kurdish land-grab backed by Western airstrikes.

Iraqi Kurds believe that the recaptured territory around the city is rightfully theirs while the Iraqi government "fears that the Kurds will use territory as leverage during political negotiations", according to Ranj Alaaldin, a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

A senior Kurdish federal official, who declined to be named, said that Peshmerga forces would never hand back areas captured after Isis's march across northern Iraq, which brought the group to within miles of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. "All the current military operations that involve the Peshmerga are implemented in coordination with the international military coalition and the central government is aware of it, but, in the Kurdish areas, we will never ever let Arabs control them again," the official warned. "We are not ready to fight, terrify our fighters' souls to liberate these areas and hand them to a traitor who would sell it to the killers. We will not allow this scenario to take place again in these areas."

While the Kurds argue that they have taken control of this territory to defend against Isis, many Iraqis believe that the Kurds will never give up what they have captured because of their ambitions for an independent state.

Despite the death of 700 Peshmerga fighters in the conflict with Isis, Dr Nussaibah Younis, Iraq expert and senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington DC, believes that Iraqi Kurds have been opportunistic in their advance as they "want to hold as much oil-rich territory as possible" ahead of gaining independence for a separate Kurdish state.

"In the chaos that followed the Isis assault on Iraq in June, the Iraqi army melted away from its positions throughout northeastern and northwestern Iraq and the Peshmerga swiftly moved in to take their place – taking control of the whole of Kirkuk," she said.

Despite these aspirations, Iraqi officials seem content to let Kurdish forces claim the territory from Daesh (as Isis is also known), for now. "As long as we are not ready to move as far as to fight in Mosul, it would be better to let them (Kurds) re-control these areas rather than leave it at the hands of Daesh," a senior Iraqi military officer said. "Now, we will not raise any political disputes. Let [the Kurds] drive the militants away from these areas and we will think about the consequences later," he added.

Hamed al-Khudari, a senior Shia lawmaker, agreed that Iraqis should "clear our lands" and "talk about this [territorial dispute] later". Nevertheless, analysts do not believe that the Iraqi government in Baghdad is capable of ousting Kurdish forces from the territory they have seized in the recent advance. "Baghdad cannot do much to kick out the Kurds from any territory they have captured," says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, analyst on Kurdish politics for the Jamestown Foundation.

The Kurds' success on the battlefield, coupled with rumours of a potential Iraqi operation in Mosul, has put Isis on the back-foot but also caused disagreement between Erbil and Baghdad. Differences remain over involvement in any potential operation to recapture Mosul. Masrour Barzani, the head of Kurdistan's regional security council, has said that Mosul will soon be "liberated" from the terror group's self-proclaimed caliphate. "I don't think anyone would envy the situation the people of Mosul are in," he said. "The terror of Isis is too much for anyone to handle."

But Kurdish officials believe that the responsibility for the recapture of the predominantly Sunni-Arab city lies solely with Baghdad. "Peshmerga are now 8km away from Mosul but they will not fight inside the city," the official, who declined to be named, said. "When it comes to liberating Mosul, its people have to fight, not anyone else. We will just support them because we do not want anyone to say that Kurds are fighting Arabs. The [Iraqi] government understands that Mosul is not our battle or Shiites' battle. Arab Sunnis in Mosul have to take the initiative to liberate their areas."

Whereas Kurdish officials believe that Baghdad should take leadership over the battle for the city, where citizens now live under the group's radical version of Islamic law, Iraqi officials claim that the battle against "Daesh is everyone's to fight. The main goal now for all Iraqis is to fight Daesh and drive them away from all the Iraqi lands, so we will not allow anyone to talk about these [territorial] issues", says al-Khudari. "This [fighting against IS] is the responsibility of everyone including the central government, the Kurdish forces, the public crowd (Shia militias and volunteers) and the anti-IS Sunni tribes."

The lack of Kurdish motivation to enter into a battle for Mosul alongside Iraqi forces is due to the knowledge that any fight would be a drawn-out and lethal affair, according to van Wilgenburg. "They know the battle is going to be very heavy if it has to involve street to street fighting," he says.

"The Kurds are already assisting the fight in Mosul. They recently fired into the city." Erbil and Baghdad both have "to be pragmatic", says Gonul Tol, executive director at the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute. Baghdad is focused on recapturing Isis-held territory as opposed to Kurdish territory while Kurds "do not want to get involved" in Mosul to avoid "igniting a Kurdish-Arab war".

While the threat of Isis remains significant, Kurds may have to put their independence dreams on hold and the Iraqi government will worry about Kurdish territorial claims later. As the terror group continues to grow, both parties need each other and the radical Islamist threat will bind them together, at least for now.

Kurdish Land-Grab Stuns Baghdad