The standoff between Iraq’s central government and the de facto independent Kurdish Regional Government has taken a turn for the worse. Over the weekend, at least 26 people were killed in attacks in the ethnically mixed disputed territories (which the KRG calls “Kurdish areas not controlled by the KRG”).
It’s unclear who exactly is responsible for the bombing attacks, and a variety of groups were targeted, including Shiites, Shabak (a Shiite minority group), and Kurdish military recruits. The oil-rich border city of Kirkuk is hotly contested, with both Baghdad and Erbil claiming control over it. Eleven people were killed and fifty wounded in attacks there on Sunday.
Iraq’s central government is not pleased with the KRG, which is steadily inching toward outright independence. Erbil is also moving into a closer alliance with Turkey while Baghdad tightens its ties to Iran. The tension increased dramatically last week when KRG leader Massoud Barzani defiantly visited Peshmerga units near Kirkuk. Barzani told the Kurdish militia “You are doing a sacred job these days, because you are defending the future of Kurdistan’s people, who have made great sacrifices to see this day.” Baghdad, which deployed its own militia in Kirkuk last month, responded angrily, calling it a “declaration of war.”
There is a danger that the confrontation over Kirkuk will explode into a full-blown civil war between Baghdad and the KRG. An Iraqi newspaper recently noted that “Kirkuk’s population is living in terror, fearing the outbreak of armed clashes between the Tigris forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Asaish forces.” An intense international political environment that puts the KRG and Turkey on one side and Baghdad and Iran on another makes this situation even more dangerous.
As the Kurds continue to consolidate their political gains and tighten the relationship with Ankara, the battle for an independent Kurdistan might be on the verge of escalating.