The Clash Over Kirkuk

Why the Real Crisis Is in Baghdad—Not Erbil

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and KRG President Massoud Barzani in Erbil, April 2015. Azad Lashkari / REUTERS

It is an indictment of U.S. foreign policy that the two major players in the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) have come to blows: the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Four days ago, Baghdad deployed thousands of its forces and the militias of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to Kirkuk, which is claimed by both the KRG and Baghdad. After clashes following the KRG’s refusal to hand over the province, Baghdad now controls the oil-rich territory.

Kirkuk has long been one of the country’s most dangerous flashpoints and the most coveted of its disputed territories. It contains as much as an estimated nine billion barrels of oil and hosts a series of strategic installations and facilities, including its oilfields, airport, and the important K-1 military base. Kirkuk has historically been home to a Kurdish-majority population, but Arab families were moved into the area to manipulate its demographics during the rule of the Baath regime, a policy that was termed “Arabization.” The region used to be jointly administered by Baghdad and the KRG, but it fell under full Kurdish control after the Iraqi Army withdrew from the province in 2014 as ISIS launched its offensive in northern Iraq. The Kurds immediately moved into Kirkuk to fill the resulting security vacuum. The calculus in Baghdad was that if Kirkuk had remained under Kurdish control indefinitely, it would have resulted in an emboldened Kurdistan at a time when the Iraqi state was fragile and Baghdad’s ruling Shiite political class was facing a crisis of authority.

It is not the Kurds who face an existential crisis. It is Iraq.

Observers have been quick to declare that the loss of Kirkuk could set the KRG and, more generally, the Kurdish state-building project back by a decade, and so soon after the Kurdish independence referendum held three weeks ago. But this is not the end of the road for Kurdistan, and it is certainly not

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