Tensions mount as Iraqi militias increase numbers in disputed areas as Kurds hold referendum

As the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) has announcement victory in the referendum on Iraqi independence, there is an increased risk of military escalation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces and militias in disputed areas, including the oil province of Kirkuk and the town of Taz Khurmatu in the neighboring province of Salahuddin. These occur in a context of escalating national and regional tensions linked to the vote.

Although the referendum vote is not binding, senior KRG officials say it includes a mandate for a possible separation. A particularly controversial issue is the status of the disputed areas. Kurdish forces spread to Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces in 2014, when the Iraqi army fled in the face of the Islamic State attack. The KRG claimed these areas as historically Kurdish land which was taken from the Kurds during the Baathist Arabization policy which lasted for decades from the late 1960s. The Arab and Turkmen populations of the region, who have armed groups, feel uncomfortable with Kurdish forces and suspect a seizure of power.

Iranian-backed Shiite-Iraqi militias of the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP) have also established positions in disputed areas including Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk for some time. The PMF recruits from these regions and has a separate Turkmen unit. PMF militias sought to project themselves as protectors of Iraqi territorial sovereignty. Previously, there have been a number of small-scale clashes in the disputed territories.

For several weeks, Tehran, Baghdad, Ankara and Iraqi-Shiite militias have warned the KRG against holding a referendum, especially in Kirkuk. Tehran fears the domino effects of the Kurdish referendum on its own Kurdish population, as well as the prospect of an allied state of Israel right next to its border. She and Ankara (briefly) put aside their differences to coordinate in order to dissuade the separation of the KRG.

Last month, Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani reportedly met with senior Kurdish officials to dissuade them from voting, warning that he would not prevent PMF militias from acting, according to Kurdish officials who was talking with Al Monitor.

Last week, Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the designated terrorist and PMF operations commander, encounter with PMF leaders in Kirkuk. Media reported a clash between the Kurdish Peshmerga and a PMF unit, although it was not immediately clear which one. In Tuz Khurmatu, the Badr organization supported by Tehran, the Asaib Ahl al Haq and Khorasani brigades present their strengths.

Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces and their allies this week launché a new offensive against the Islamic State in the Hawijah district of Kirkuk.

Baghdad and Erbil take tough positions on the contested areas of Kirkuk and Tuz Khuramatu. On September 24, the Kurdish peshmerga announced that he was fully prepared to defend Kirkuk “Without discrimination” if “terrorists infiltrate the city”. Reuters reported that a senior official of the Badr Organization had reaffirmed on the way out that the group would prevent the Kurdish authorities from organizing referendum polls in the Shiite-Turkmen regions of Tuz Khurmatu, accusing them of seeking to “seize the disputed areas”.

The next day, Harakat al Nujaba – whose leader Akram al Kabi was in Iran last Friday to attend a funeral ceremony with Soleimani – released a statement call Kirkuk was an “occupied” province and declared itself ready to “liberate the region”. The group spokesman added that “Iraq’s commander-in-chief must lead the operation to liberate the occupied areas towards the oil fields and prevent the Kurdish militias from stealing the wealth of the Iraqi nation.”

The day of the referendum, images circulated of Asaib Ahl al Haq’s columns deploying forces in Kirkuk, reinforcing the PMF there. And the Badr organization reported than its affiliate 23e The PMF brigade deployed a large number of its forces in Tuz Khurmatu to “observe” the security situation.

Iran and Turkey, meanwhile, have organized military exercises in their KRG border areas. Turkey has threatened to cut all KRG oil and commercial pipelines crossing its territory, and its next steps will be to depend on whether Erbil will acquiesce in his extortion. Washington has expressed its “deep disappointment” with the vote and the idea that it is taking place in contested areas.

Baghdad is united in opposing a Kurdish referendum. Prime Minister Hayder al Abadi Abadi has called on the KRG authorities to reverse the vote giving the central government control of the airports. Yesterday he encounter with Asaib Ahl al Haq chief Qais Khazali to discuss the government’s response, highlighting how the KRG referendum brought rivals together – temporarily.

Today the Iraqi parliament authorized Abadi to use military force in Kirkuk. The spokesperson for the Hezbollah Brigades flayed The president of the KRG, Massoud Barzani, describes him as a “traitor”, accusing him of having used forces to try to control Kirkuk and to sell oil “illegally”. He reaffirmed that the Iran-led “axis of resistance” is “united” and operates within “a clear strategic framework”. Echoing these calls, the secretary general of the Seyyed al Shuhada Brigades, Abu Ala al Walaei, told the media that “we will prevent Israel from approaching Iraq by establishing a Kurdish government”, going so far as to say that ” the objective of entering DAECH [the Islamic State] in Iraq was to hold this referendum. He claims that a Kurdish government would start a “50 years war” in the region.

A delegation of the Iraqi armed forces must to travel to Iran to coordinate military efforts against the referendum, Iraqi media reported.

The provocative KRG referendum sent shockwaves across the region. Bitter disputes over disputed areas – particularly the Kirkuk oil fields – set the stage for future conflict. Iranian-allied Shiite figures and militias will continue to play key roles and attempt to position themselves as the protectors of a sovereign and independent Iraq. Soleimani, who also did not prevent the vote, will seek to assert his influence. And with Iraq set to hold provincial and parliamentary elections next year, Soleimani and his men will seek to leverage Kurdish independence to undermine their rivals, especially Abadi.

Amir Toumaj is a research analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Caleb Weiss is a contributor to the FDD Long War Journal.

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Keywords: AAH, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Badr, Harakat Nujaba, Iran, Iraq, IRGC, KRG, Kurdistan, peshmerga, Soleimani, YBS

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