Alwaght- Despite a wide range of internal, regional, and international opposition, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence late on September, forcing the region into a new crisis after Iraq and the whole West Asian region saw some calm following defeat of ISIS terrorist group in Iraq's Mosul, Syrian forces and their allies' anti-terror triumphs, and also emerging cooperation of the powers Russia, Iran, and Turkey to push for regional peace.
It is clear for all, predominantly for Iraqis, that efforts for split of Iraq will unleash grave threats to the country’s national security and interests, with the neighbors also fearing serious similar impacts as a result. The significance of the unity of Iraq was disregard by the Iraqi Kurdish leaders who insisted that the result of the last month’s vote was valid and that the independence process must be pressed ahead. Masoud Barzani, the expired president of Kurdistan region, has turned down all offers of sitting on the negotiating table to settle the disputes with the central government after the breakaway ballot, as he had done so before the vote. Barzani rejected United Nations proposal to talk with Baghdad for settlement. He also refused to entertain a peace roadmap proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who invited for unconditional dialogue with Erbil starting from September and concluding at most within three years. The UN promised support for the negotiations and any potential outcomes of them.
Even after the vote, the Iraqi federal governments kept door open to negotiations to reach a peaceful solution to the discord between Baghdad and Erbil. The top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in a proposal for peace called for return to the “constitutional path” to save Iraq sovereignty and to address the rights of the country’s Kurds. Both the government and parliament showed backing for Ayatollah Sistani's stances. The plan provided the best scope for Barzani to see enforcement of some parts of the constitution that he argues have been neglected for years. However, the Kurdish leader stressed on pressing ahead with secession efforts beside any talks that he said were possible only if Baghdad set a date for conclusion of separation process. By doing so he stripped Baghdad of all available options that could produce peaceful exit from the unfolding crisis.
Despite that, for the government of PM al-Abadi the military action against the KRG remained the last option as he put a premium on the country’s cohesion as the top element meeting the nation’s interests. To this end, the central government embarked on a diplomatic campaign to impose a sanctions regime against the KRG in association with the neighboring countries that shared common concerns to put strains on the Erbil leaders to go to talks for a political solution. Iran and Turkey responded to the Iraqi calls to close their airspace to the flights from and to the autonomous region’s airports. However, the arrangement did not produce expected violence-avoiding results due to absence of realistic vision among the Kurdish leaders, leaving the PM al-Abadi, as commander-in-chief of the Iraqi forces, to consider the last available choice. On Monday, he ordered a military operation in the Kurdish-held Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in north that units of Iraq forces managed to recapture in a sweeping push, largely without violence and human casualties.
The advancing troops retook the state buildings, military installations, and the Kirkuk airport, along with such major oilfields as Bai Hassan, Baba Karkar, Khabaz, Gambor, Allas, and Ajil. The multi-fronted operation continued on Tuesday when Iraqi army along with Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) recaptured Sinjar city and Khanaqin district from Kurdish Militias, known as Peshmerga. Now the action is unfolding, intending to retake other regions that after ISIS offensive in June 2014 fell to the terrorists and from them to Peshmerga militias.
With Peshmerga's loss of the contested regions, Erbil will naturally fall in severely weak position compared to Baghdad that will have the upper hand and determine the path and framework of the future negotiations. In fact, one of the results of Erbil officials' insistence on their unrealistic demands that produced military confrontation is their loss of chances through which they could talk with Baghdad and ask for concessions. On the opposite side, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), based in Sulaymaniyah, showed realism in dealing with the regional and international conditions, something led it to stand in the face of the Barzani-headed Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) risky pro-breakaway agenda. By declining to be in tune with the KDP's pushing for independence at any expense that could bear grave consequences for the Kurds, the PUK weakened Erbil position in future interactions with Baghdad.
The Iraqi forces' operation did not draw foreign opposition and negative reactions to Baghdad. The analysts cite two factors behind absence of foreign criticism. First, the government’s action is meant to save the territorial unity of the country by suppressing the secessionist agenda. This is internationally acceptable and complies with the international law and the rationality of the global states. But the more important reason is the massive chaos from Iraq split that could devour the region thoroughly and of course unleash unfettered political, economic, and security crises. This has given the global consensus on necessity of Baghdad's anti-split military steps a reason to play out.
The operation to reclaim disputed areas from Kurdish militias is expected to enhance the central government’s power and image at home and abroad. Disputed regions label covers some parts of Kirkuk, Diyala, Nineveh, and Saladin provinces on which the Iraqi government and Kurds struggle for control and demographic structure determination. Taking advantage of vacuum of power created by ISIS incursion into the Arab country, Kurdish militias seized control of many parts of these disputed areas.
Nearly two decades after the US and its allies' invasion of Iraq in 2003 that caused Iraq security downfall, ethno-sectarian violence, politico-economic crisis, ISIS rise and losing territories to the terrorists, and very recently Kurdistan independence referendum, Baghdad has now retaken control of Kirkuk after its successful Mosul recapture, which means Baghdad is restoring its enormously enfeebled position internally and internationally.
Operation to recapture disputed areas works as an effective step towards quashing both domestic and foreign threats endangering the Iraqi interests. With the mission goals secured, Baghdad can see other separatist voices silenced and more chances will be given to politics and dialogue to help various sectarian groups, minorities, and political parties to solve the problems peacefully. From foreign perspective, the operation will strengthen Iraq’s power to help it regain its relatively lost role in regional equations and so have the power necessary to counter foreign intervention in the country’s politics.