The precipitous withdrawal of forces nominally loyal to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from the oil-rich Kirkuk region of northern Iraq in the face of an advance by Iraqi troops has taken many foreign observers by surprise. Under the direct control of the Kurds since the summer of 2014 (and indirectly since 2003), an initial series of clashes and military mobilisations in the area convinced most analysts that a major confrontation between the separatist and federal authorities in Erbil and Baghdad, respectively, was inevitable. In the event the famed Peshmerga, an umbrella term for various Kurdish armed groups affiliated with the KRG, retreated before hardly a shot was fired.
This has led to all sorts of conspiracy theories, speculation focusing on a deal between the military wing of the supposedly left-wing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a minority Kurdish political party co-founded and led by the late former Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and the central government. The PUK is both the partner and main rival of the conservative Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which has dominated the regional administration in Erbil under the authoritarian rule of the Barzani family for over a decade. The decision by Masoud Barzani, the long-running KDP leader and disputed President of Iraqi Kurdistan, to hold a successful independence referendum in September seems to have brought to the fore internal rivalries among the Kurds dating back to the complex, three-year civil war of the 1990s (which, of course, was principally fought between the PUK and KDP movements, the latter receiving some assistance from Iran until the Islamic Republic switched support to the former faction).
A complicating element in this picture is the role of Iran, which has moved to fill the political vacuum left in its war-torn neighbour by the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist regime in 2003, and the formal withdrawal of the United States-led coalition forces in 2011. Tehran now wields more power in Iraq than any other foreign nation, its military and intelligence services playing an important role in stalling and then driving back the expansion of the insurgent Islamic State (IS) towards Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias, nominally under the authority of the central government through the amorphous Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), have proved pivotal in asserting federal control over formerly lawless or rebellious areas of the country. These include majority-Shia groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, whose weapons and equipment are only slightly inferior to that of the conventional units they serve beside. In the Kirkuk zone the Peshmerga were facing the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), badly mauled from encounters with IS during the nine month battle for Mosul, with Iranian-led militiamen behind them. Militiamen who garnered a well-deserved reputation for sectarianism and communal violence during fighting elsewhere in the country.
If, as (falsely?) rumoured, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has done a deal with the inept federal government in Baghdad, and beyond them with Tehran, to enhance its own position and damage that of its main rival in Kurdistan, the KDP, it is a deal that the Kurdish party may well come to regret. Despite being entrenched in the national politics of the country – with Fuad Masum, the co-founder of the KDP, serving as the current ceremonial President of Iraq – the group is still regarded by many in the Arabic south as untrustworthy. The events of the last year have yet to alter that opinion.
Finally, the Iranian military commander “advising” the Iraqi generals, Qasem Soleimani, has shown himself to be a master strategist in the past and there is some evidence to believe that he may have orchestrated the shock events in Kirkuk over the last several weeks. Which makes Iran the biggest winner in the war to reunite fractured Iraq.