On October 20, Iraqi Security Forces battled Kurdish Peshmerga near the town of Altun Kupri. The Iraqi forces cradled U.S.-made M-16s and rode on black-coated American Humvees. The Peshmerga, defending a berm near the town, were also shown on video using U.S.-made Humvees, painted olive green. If there is a symbol of U.S. policy gone awry it is that these two partners in the coalition that has so successfully fought ISIS are now turning their guns on each other. Most troubling is the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias called Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) among the Iraqi fighters. Since the fall of 2016, PMUs have been officially part of the Iraqi Security Forces.
The recent developments in the complex, simmering conflict between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil have pitted an array of forces against one another and provide a worrying picture of the future to come in a post-ISIS Iraq. ISIS hasn’t even been fully defeated yet and the underlying divisions in Iraq have already re-emerged.
At the center of the current conflict is the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, which is surrounded by prodigious oil fields. In the summer of 2014, Iraqi forces abandoned Kirkuk as they fled from ISIS. Kurdish Peshmerga, with air support and special forces provided by a U.S.-led coalition, stemmed the tide of ISIS and pushed the extremists back from the city. Since then, the U.S. has been training both Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces. By March 2017, the State Department estimated that 18,000 Kurds and 70,000 Iraqi soldiers had been trained and equipped.
On October 16, after giving the Peshmerga an ultimatum to withdraw, the Iraqi army rolled into Kirkuk, a city that lies at the heart of the Kurdish dispute with Baghdad. Kurdish officials claimed that more than 100,000 Kurds fled the city. According to sources in the Kurdish region, the return of the Iraqi army to Kirkuk was midwifed by Iran’s Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and leaders of the Shia militias Hadi al-Amiri and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Photos and video from the days leading up to the operation suggested that these men, who are all linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, gave the Kurds an ultimatum: Agree to abandon the area around the city and accept the suzerainty of Baghdad or face overwhelming force. Politicians within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of three largest political parties in the autonomous Kurdish parliament, agreed to most of those demands because of their historic relations with Iran and support for compromise with Baghdad. The rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, based in Erbil, objected.
The Iraqi forces and Shia militias conquered Kirkuk relatively easily, spearheading the attack with U.S.-made M1A1 tanks and Humvees. Some of these tanks have been acquired by Iraq through U.S. Foreign Military Financing, according to a March 2017 fact sheet prepared by the State Department.
Although the State Department expressed concern about the violence in Kirkuk and called on “all parties to coordinate military activities and restore calm,” the opposite has happened. Iraqi forces continue to press their gains and Kurdish protesters in places such as Khanaquin have been assaulted. On October 19, Senator Ted Cruz called on the Iraqi government to “halt all efforts that contribute to regional escalation against the Kurdish people.” He noted that “we must not permit our support or our military equipment to be used by Iranian-backed militias.”
U.S. policymakers are watching the unfolding events without a strategy to contain the slow-moving disaster that is happening in northern Iraq. The Kurdish regional government has been successful and stable. It offered shelter to millions of displaced people who fled ISIS and has been a loyal regional partner of the U.S. for decades. But American policy has tended to side with Baghdad in disputes, because Baghdad is a key ally against ISIS. This has resulted in a devil’s bargain over the last three years, as Iranian-backed militias swept into Iraq to fill the vacuum left by ISIS. When ISIS was an existential threat, it was an understandable trade-off, similar to working with the Soviet Union and Stalin to defeat Hitler. Now that ISIS is almost defeated, it makes much less sense.
The Trump administration must ask itself if it’s in America’s interest to partner with Baghdad against the Kurdish region. Already, the Kurdish cause has been greatly weakened by Iran and by sanctions Baghdad imposed after the recent Kurdish independence referendum. Many Kurds feel isolated and betrayed. Tough questions must be asked about where Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq have obtained U.S. equipment and whether the U.S. wants to continue to advise and assist an Iraqi army that openly flies Shia flags, alienating the Sunni population of the country and eroding its unity.