Today from the Kurdish outlet Rudaw comes news of a preliminary agreement regarding disputed areas in Iraq between the Iraqi Defense Ministry- overseeing security forces belonging to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad- and the Peshmerga Ministry- responsible for the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The background to this agreement has been as follows: clashes between unidentified parties in the town of Tuz Kharmuto (a town in Salah ad-Din province with a mixed Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab population), which led to the president of the KRG- Massoud Barzani- putting the Kurdish security forces on high alert (on the grounds it was a clash between Peshmerga and central government forces), Kurdish complaints about the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command by the central government in the disputed town of Kirkuk, whose status as regards provincial elections remains in dispute, and recent bomb attacks in Kirkuk that have caused several casualties, with a build-up of Iraqi army and Kurdish forces in the disputed areas.
The rhetoric- as is common throughout the region- has been quite heated too, as when Barzani accused Iraq premier Nouri al-Maliki of planning to bomb KRG sites with fighter jets and invade the autonomous region.It should also be noted that for the provincial elections next year, both the Kurdish and Shi’a parties are running on united sectarian lists in the mixed province of Diyala.
As regards the attacks in Kirkuk, however, it should not immediately be concluded that the perpetrators are Kurds and/or Arabs turning to violence to target each other in escalating ethnic tension in the city. Rather, since these attacks in Kirkuk have been part of a wave of insurgent operations across the country, it is more likely that remnants of the Sunni insurgency (whether al-Qa’ida, the Ba’athist Naqshibandi or the like) are trying to stir up animosity in the hope of creating a security vacuum and thus entrenching themselves in the city.
For all these problems, however, it is clear that there is much brinkmanship at work but not open conflict. There was a similar display of brinkmanship without bloodshed in the summer at a border crossing town between Iraq and Syria, where 10,000 KRG troops were deployed, with Maliki accusing the KRG of violating the Iraqi constitution. Note that Barzani hurled the same accusation of constitutional violation as regards the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command. There are bound to be more disputes and displays of brinkmanship in the future, especially as the Iraqi constitution as it stands is still a messy document, but both sides recognise that all-out conflict is not in their interests. Whether or not the clashes in Tuz Kharmuto were between Peshmerga men and Iraqi government forces, it is clear that the Peshmerga Ministry was keen to contain the situation rather than push for an open fight. As for the preliminary agreement reported by Rudaw, it is notable that there is a promise to reconsider the Tigris Operations Command in an effort to diffuse tension, indicating some willingness to compromise.
The possibility of an escalation with prolonged bloodletting at some point cannot be entirely discounted, of course, but it remains unlikely in the near future.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org