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The Strategic Minefields between Kirkuk and Mosul

For few days, Kirkuk appeared to be a distraction from the battle of Mosul. ISIL staged a surprise attack in the heart of Kirkuk October 21, and all heads turned towards that city. But soon, the attack was repelled and the focus went back to where it should be: Mosul.

Yet, the attack on Kirkuk refueled another episode of the ongoing political-strategic conflict in Iraq. The attack coincided with the beginning of the countdown to liberate the Sunni town of Hwaijah in Nineveh Province and with the obvious advance towards the decisive moment in Mosul.

But the objective of the attack, besides causing a negative shock in the anti-ISIL camp and raising the morale of its supporters, was to further the split between the two major Kurdish parties in the Kurdish region. The Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, based in Erbil, is competing politically with the Patriotic Union (PUK), based in Sulaymaniyah.

The PUK is close to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and to the Shia militias, called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Both Maliki and some groups in the core of the PMF are openly coordinating with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).

ISIL wishes that the PMF take all major Sunni towns and population centers. For if those areas fall under the control of the flagrantly sectarian Shia groups, the raison d’etre of ISIL will remain alive, and the Sunni population will rush to help its fighters.

Once Kirkuk was attacked, the PMF pointed their fingers at the Peshmerga and said they are “incapable” of protecting the town, and asked that security responsibilities be surrendered to the Iraqi government and the PMF.

What we’re witnessing now in that area is part of IRGC Quds Force Commander Qassem Suilmanei’s relentless effort to expand the PMF’s territorial control.

Among the issues discussed prior to the Kirkuk attack was the increasing anti-government insurgency among Iranian Kurds and ways to support the PUK in its political conflict with the KDP. There is mounting evidence that the PKK coordinates with the PMF and IRGC to shake the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The idea is to force Barzani, who is on friendly terms with Turkey and the US, to give concessions to the PUK and reduces his cooperation with both Washington and Ankara. Some reports mention that the PMF offered to pay some fighters of the PKK to help quell Iranian Kurds’ insurgency and confront KRG. The offer was allegedly accepted. We cannot claim that those reports are accurate, because we simply do not have any way by which we can verify them. However, we can say that even if they are not accurate, they reflect the mounting suspicions between the various forces competing to have a portion in the post-ISIL central and northern Iraq.

The PKK already rushed some of its fighters to Kirkuk to help maintain security after ISIL’s failed attack. The PMF made a lot of noise in Baghdad to be allowed to go to Kirkuk. It pressed the government to send troops, including its own units, to the city. The message is clear: We will control everything we can get in the post-ISIL territories. ISIL is glad to provide help. If the PMF controls vast areas of Sunni land in Iraq, it will thus provide a justification for ISIL to remain implanted in the heart of this land to protect the Sunni population as the group claims. In Fallujah, Tikrit, and recently near Mosul, Human Rights Watch gathered significant evidence indicating the slaughter of Sunnis by the sectarian PMF thugs.

However, the population of Kirkuk – Arabs and Kurds – fought heroically against the incursion of ISIL fighters. It may be worthwhile for those who want to go deeper in analyzing the inter-connections between the involved parties to know that ISIL only attacked areas in Kirkuk under the control of the KDP. Areas under the PUK’s umbrella were spared from any ISIL military action.

It is always ironic to see who extremists objectively coordinate with each other: ISIL plays the music, and the PMF performs. And when it’s the PMF’s turn to be the orchestra, ISIL dances.

The PUK is an established political party with a long history of fighting for the rights of Iraq’s Kurds. It is unlikely that the party’s leadership officially approved any shadowy deals with the PKK, the IRGC, or the PMF. If the Sulaymaniyah meetings this summer among representatives of the three parties did allude to coordination among the PKK, PUK, PMF and IRGC, it might have been that a group within the party saw it convenient to embarrass the leadership of the party. It is difficult to imagine that the patriotic PUK, with its long history of defending Iraq’s integrity and Kurdish causes, would coordinate with the Iranians against Iran’s Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis.

The desire to shake Barzani is a proper ground for the IRGC to move ahead with its plan of expansion in central Iraq. The IRGC is obviously moving to form a sort of coalition between the PKK, a wing in the PUK, and the PMF to weaken US and Turkish allies in north Iraq and shake the KDP.

In this context, we can see the fierce opposition to any Turkish role in north Iraq while the opponents of Turkey in Baghdad do not even open their mouths with a whisper against the IRGC’s presence there. It is merely selective patriotism and unveiled hypocrisy.

In this context, as well as in the 24 October communique of one of the worst sectarian PMF groups – Asayobu Ahlal Haq – that states bluntly that the group “received orders from the leadership of the PMF to attack Tal Afar,” it is easy to see how Central Iraq is being targeted. The IRGC and the PMF are preparing to take Tal Afar, which is currently under the control of ISIL. The town is sensitive both in tribal sense and strategic significance. It is the alternative path from Iraq to Syria.

ISIL has become a magnet, attracting all those from the region who want to control central Iraq. Iran should understand, however, that if its agents in the PMF try to subjugate the Sunni tribes in Iraq, another ISIL will certainly rise. If the Iranians are willing to leave Iraq in peace, Iraqis of all ethnicities, faiths, and sects will live together in peace, as they have for centuries. Any other way will be a sure road to perpetual war.

The Sunnis of Mosul are already fighting ISIL inside the city. Graffiti on the walls, nightly ambushes, and calls for revolt led tens of Mosul youth to execution by ISIL in public squares. Those who reject ISIL are Sunnis, and they pay the ultimate price. If they find out later that their fight to liberate their people led to their enslavement by Iran’s agents, they may become ISIL’s newest members.

Only a plan for the region’s self-governance, within a unified Iraq, will guarantee the end of ISIL once and for all.

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