The recent increase of Iraqi troops in resource-rich contested areas is fuelling fears that the subsequent escalation of tension could develop into full-scale war between the Shiite Iraqi government and the area known as Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi encroachment on the city of Kirkuk is one of the reasons for the recent escalation as the Kurdistan Regional Government has issued a number of statements compelling Iraq to back away from this area, threatening war should it continue with its current aggressive policy.
Hasan Selim Ozertem, a specialist from the Center for Energy Security Studies at USAK discussed the reasons and context of this escalation, stating that, “Prime Minister Maliki is trying to expand Baghdad’s sovereignty at the expense of Kurdish autonomy for two main reasons. The first of which is the rent sharing problem in Iraq which is exacerbated by the blurred articles in the Iraqi constitution refereeing to who has control over energy resources in the region. Similarly, Arbil takes unilateral steps and makes agreements with international companies at the expense of the Iraqi government which disturbs Maliki.”
Moreover the undecided status of Kirkuk in Iraq makes the problem more complicated because having waste oil and gas reserves.
The Kirkuk problem and the constitution present the main deadlocks in this intractable issue.
Iraq’s motivations can additionally be looked at as a result of increasing ties between the KRG and the international community regarding oil and gas exports undermining Iraq’s own economic interests and encroaching on its sovereignty as the contested areas would become part of a de facto Kurdish state.
Since the conflict on November 16th in Tuz Khurmato where two people were killed, the situation has become even more militarised with Kurdish fighters, including 125 tanks, and heavily armed Iraqi units flocking to the area. Furthermore, Iraq has recently signed a military agreement with the US meaning the government will soon be in possession of F16′s worth $3 billion, a potential motivation for the KRG to enter into a conflict now while the playing field remains relatively even.
With such an influx of troops and tension on both sides, the conflict has become a stale-mate with neither side wanting to exacerbate the situation further. There is to be a meeting between the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad today to try and resolve the conflict, with Iraq’s parliamentary speaker stating that “significant progress” had been made so far. However, Hasan Ozertem argues that “despite both Baghdad’s and Arbil’s attempts at diplomacy, it seems its difficult to find a long-lasting solution to the problem.”
The following days will tell whether this will turn into a full-fledged crisis rather than a demonstration of brinkmanship on both sides, however what is assured is that this, as with many Middle Eastern conflicts, will not be resolved by any kind of temporary agreement or cease-fire. The enduring contestation over the ownership of this land, its vast resources and the sectarian tensions which fuel these tensions further make this as intractable a conflict as ever. Furthermore, any escalation in violence will certainly have a detrimental effect on the fragile stability of the region given the strategic and geopolitical significance of Iraq and risking the possible deterioration of the state; a country teetering on the edge of failed-statehood due to multiple invasions, wars, ethnic tensions and resource competition between the federal government and the KRG.