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Middle East

Analysis: Saving Iraq – looking to the Kurds

© Photo: AFP

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2014-06-12

Jihadist fighters continued their push into the Iraqi heartland Thursday as Iraq confronted a crisis of existential proportions. FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto examines who can save Iraq from imploding and more importantly, will they be inclined to help?

As jihadist fighters continued their onslaught in Iraq, seizing swathes of territory south of Mosul, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said Iraq faces a “serious, mortal threat''. Leela Jacinto considers the options for Iraq’s embattled caretaker Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Who can save Iraq from imploding?

Iraq is facing an existential threat and the job of preventing a likely implosion rests on the Iraqi military.

In the days and weeks to come, there will be some soul-searching in Baghdad and Washington over how a once-proud Arab army simply collapsed and failed to defend the country’s second-largest city. The US has spent around $20 billion to train and equip Iraqi security forces. So, what happened?

This is not the time for finger-pointing. The question is, what can be done?

The US can certainly help with logistical support and possibly with drone strikes. But the US and UK are not going to send "boots" to a country where thousands of American and British lives were lost.

Right now, all eyes are on the peshmerga, armed ethnic Kurdish fighters. Will the peshmerga (literally, "those who face death") forces join the fight against ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the jihadist group that has seized territory all the way up to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region?

The peshmerga are a force of infantrymen under the command of Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, who heads the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

There’s little doubt that senior Iraqi military officials would like the peshmerga to join the battle against ISIS. These Kurdish fighters are battle-hardened, they have a reputation as brave fighters and they know the terrain well.

Peshmerga forces have been deployed in a defensive position along the disputed line separating territory claimed by the KRG based in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil and the central government in Baghdad.

But in order to get the KRG's active participation in an onslaught, Baghdad has to be willing to make concessions to the Kurds on a number of issues.

Remember the Kurds are a traditionally oppressed people, they believe history – especially the colonial powers – handed them a raw deal by denying them a homeland and Iraq’s Kurds would like to know what’s in it for them.

Key issues for the Kurds are revenue from oil sales, especially revenue-sharing between Baghdad and Arbil, as well as the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies at the heart of a longstanding dispute between the Iraqi central government and the KRG.

On Thursday, Iraqi army soldiers abandoned their positions in Kirkuk, according to Kurdish military officials, leaving the city in “the hands of the peshmerga,” according to a Kurdish military spokesman.

Iraqi Kurdistan has a vibrant economy and has been attracting foreign investment. The KRG prides itself on the region’s stability, and the Kurds are not willing to lose all this.

There are conflicting reports of the KRG and peshmerga’s actions during the latest onslaught on Mosul.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzan issued a statement a day after the fall of Mosul: “Over the last two days we tried extremely hard to establish cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces in order to protect the city of Mosul. Tragically, Baghdad adopted a position which has prevented the establishment of this cooperation.”

It’s noteworthy that a few peshmerga units did not put up a fight when ISIS fighters moved into western Mosul. It’s clear they were not issued orders to fight the jihadist group. At the same time, ISIS has so far avoided directly engaging Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been drawn into the crisis with the kidnapping of Turkish consulate staff in Mosul as well as a group of Turkish truck drivers. Turkey is a major power in the region. What can Turkey do?

Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors Wednesday evening to discuss the situation in Iraq – not, it must be noted, to ask for NATO’s help in fighting ISIS.

Turkey has to play a delicate balancing act since some of its citizens are under ISIS captivity. They include some of the 49 staffers abducted from the Turkish consulate in Mosul and around 30 Turkish truck drivers.

On Wednesday, the trucking company that employs the drivers said their officials received a demand for a $5 million ransom payment from ISIS. There are probably some back-door negotiations going on between Turkey and ISIS for the release of the consulate staff – including the Turkish consul general in Mosul.

Turkey and Syria have historic links and cultural ties that date back through the centuries. In the Syrian province of Aleppo lies the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, that is sovereign Turkish territory.

Since the 2011 uprising in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that “any unfavourable act” against the monument could elicit a Turkish attack.

There have been conflicting reports about the situation on the ground, with Turkish media reporting that the site is surrounded by ISIS. Other reports claim ISIS allowed a change of Turkish guards at the site earlier this year. Still other reports say Turkish soldiers returned home from a change-of-guard and there were no Turkish soldiers currently at the site. These reports are hard to corroborate but it underscores the tricky nature of Turkish involvement in the region.

Erdogan is facing pressure in some quarters of Turkish public opinion over what is viewed as his “mistaken Syria policy”.

With the tide in Syria turning in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour, Turkey in recent months has been making overtures to Iran, one of Assad’s main backers. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Turkey earlier this week and it’s interesting that the latest ISIS threat could draw Sunni Turkey and Shiite Iran to see eye-to-eye.

 

Date created : 2014-06-12

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