Kirkuk, Iraq. 

Sparse and inhospitable.  

The people residing in the embattled settlements of the Northern Iraqi region of Kirkuk embody the fierce sectarian divisions that continue to ravage Iraq. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Christians all reside in a region rich in oil and conflict in equal measure. This week they were witness to the first major conflict to arise from the struggle for Kurdish Independence in Iraq, and will likely see more in the ensuing months. Yet, what the people of Kirkuk and territories of both the Iraqi and Kurdish regional governments are unlikely to see is any US Intervention as President Donald Trump vows to refrain from choosing sides in a conflict to which they had an integral part.  

Up until 2014, Kirkuk was under the jurisdiction of the central government in Baghdad. That was until the rise of the Islamic State group that occupied large swathes of territory in Northern Iraq including the former cultural hub of Mosul, as well as positions along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, causing widespread destruction. The Iraqi military, who till only recently were severely weakened and barely operational, withdrew from Kirkuk and surrounding regions. 

Liberation from the so-called caliphate came in the form of the Peshmerga, the military division of the KRG, the ruling Kurdish government in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Northern Iraqi operating under its own laws and political jurisdiction, yet up until recently still a part of the Iraqi State and the central government in Baghdad. They suffered heavy losses throughout the conflict with the Islamic State, yet also made genuine advances as the Peshmerga liberated territories abandoned by Baghdad. Such territories included Kirkuk, the second largest source of Iraqi oil – the country’s biggest export. 

As of this week, the territory is reported to once again be in the hands of the central Iraqi government. Self-determination and democratic zeal has all but left the people of Kurdistan abandoned by the international community. Their independence referendum received 92% of votes in support of secession from Iraq and the establishment of a Kurdish state. The international community almost universally condemned the move, citing that it would destabilize efforts to eradicate the Islamic State group from the region. Despite having received considerable military support from the US-led coalition throughout the fight against the Islamic State, the United States routinely called for mediation at a time when Kurdish nationalism and sectarian divisions were at an all-time high in Iraq.  

Conflict between Iraqi Arab and Kurdish groups are not the only issue to continue to destabilize Iraq. Divisions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims have only been exacerbated by the Shiite Iraqi government’s return to power, wrestling it away from the Sunni Islamic State group. How they have done so has drawn international ire, recruiting militia groups supported by Iran. These groups have been trained and armed by the Islamic Republic, and in cases are rumoured to have even been directly organised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran’s intervention in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have been a point of serious contention for many international powers. Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite militant factions were utilised to help prop up the regime of President Bashaar al-Asssad in Syria when the regime was suffering its heaviest losses to the Islamic State group and the US-led coalition, supporting groups such as the SDF, a majority Kurdish organisation, that continues to make genuine advancements as the city of Raqqa is finally rid of the Islamic State.  

This leaves the United States in an extremely precarious position. They have, in the fight against the Islamic State, supported both the Iraqi central government and Kurdish groups such as the KRG and the SDF. These groups, along with the Shiite militias who have not been directly supported by the US-led coalition, have up until recently formed a tenuous alliance in the eradication of the Islamic State. The role of the Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by American training and armament, have played a key role, yet so too have the militias. Relinquishing the Islamic State’s grip on Mosul would not have been possible without them. 

Iran continues to pursue its own ends by boosting its military and political influence within the borders of a nation who, under Saddam Hussein, was a mortal enemy and direct and dire threat. Iran aims to strengthen and secure its ‘land bridge’ to the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria. They wish to strengthen the governance, and their role therein, of fellow Shiite nations, and to protect against Kurdish secession within their own borders.  

As Hashd al-Shaabi – a Shiite militia group, takes control of Kirkuk, and fellow groups take hold of the Yazidi regions of Shengal, it’s clear that the role of Iran and their Shiite militias is an integral one. Engaging in military opposition, in support of their allies, the Kurds, the US would be forced to not only engage with forces they have also supported, but also with forces directly linked to Iran. To do so, would likely be perceived by the Islamic Republic as an act of war at a time when US-Iranian tensions are at their highest since the US embassy siege amidst the 1979 Revolution.  

It is currently unclear how the KRG will retaliate, and to what ends President Barzani will go to protect dreams of Kurdish secession. Currently, Kurdistan and the KRG are almost without any substantial regional or international support. PKK forces were rumoured to have joined the fight at Kirkuk from neighbouring Turkey. Yet as Kurdish forces continue to retreat it is evident that a full-scale conflict is undesirable, yet not unavoidable. As conflict escalates, as it is surely expected to continue to do so, US intervention may prove inevitable.  

Featured image by U.S. Department of Defense