Buried beneath the headlines of Egypt’s constitutional crisis and Syria’s potential implosion another flashpoint in the region has quietly been escalating. A standoff in the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk between Iraqi army and police forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish Peshmerga forces under the command of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has threatened to erupt into a full scale war.
This latest confrontation between Baghdad and the KRG stems from a November incident in the town of Tuz Kharmato approximately 45 miles south of Kirkuk where one person was killed and ten wounded when Iraqi police attempted to arrest a Kurdish businessman accused of smuggling oil. Since then both sides have made provacative statements accusing the other of further escalating the conflict. During the past two days attacks in Kirkuk have resulted in the deaths of 11 people and two bombings in Tuz Kharmato killed five and wounded 24.
In the past, the U.S. military had helped ease tensions in Iraq’s disputed northern territories that separate the semi-autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. In 2009, the U.S. set-up a “Combined Security Mechanism” that placed an equal amount of Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and U.S. soldiers at checkpoints along the green line that marks the border of the disputed territories to prevent miscommunications from turning into confrontations. But Kirkuk in particular was deemed too divisive to adhere to this arrangement, and U.S. troops manned the checkpoints along with local Iraqi police not beholden to either Baghdad or the KRG.
This past July, with U.S. troops long gone from Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki formed a new Tigris Operations Command that placed Kirkuk under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi army for the first time. The KRG responded by unilaterally moving Peshmerga troops to Kirkuk’s northern edge. The U.S. has again tried to help mediate between the two sides by brokering talks led by Lt. General Bob Caslen, commander of what remains of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, known as the Office of Security Cooperation. But in Iraq’s current political climate, Iranian led efforts to diffuse the crisis may now hold more sway with officials in Baghdad and Erbil.
Most analysts view this latest crisis as simply political posturing ahead of provincial elections set to take place in April 2013. Prime Minister Maliki may be seeking to burnish his image as an Iraqi nationalist to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis who view Kurdish incursions into the disputed territories as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. But even if Iraq manages again to avoid a return to full scale violence, the underlying issue of Kirkuk and the disputed territories is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, the announcement today that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani may be in critical condition after suffering a stroke removes one of the leading voices of moderation from the conflict.
The latest events in Kirkuk reveal just how little national reconciliation has taken hold in Iraq almost five years after the U.S. troop surge supposedly provided the Iraqis space to hammer out their toughest political divisions. Until these underlying issues are somehow resolved Iraq will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis teetering on the brink of a return to war.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.