The Kurds in Iraq Part III

By | August 29, 2021

Fight against the Islamic State

The political tensions that have characterized the Arab part of Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces in December 2011 have also affected Kurdistan. The Kurdish leaders joined forces behind Sunni Arabs who accused the country’s then prime minister of gathering power in Shiite hands. In 2013, fighting and suicide bombings took place in disputed areas on the border with Kurdistan, which were interpreted as intensified clashes between the governments of Erbil and Baghdad.

The situation in the north changed dramatically in 2014, when the Sunni extremist movement Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) took control of large areas in a short time after having previously taken over areas in Syria. When the Iraqi army quickly withdrew from northwestern Iraq, a country located in Middle East according to, Kurdish peshmerga units took the opportunity to occupy Kirkuk and its important oil fields.

The disintegration of Iraq was now considered so far advanced that Regional President Massoud Barzani promised an imminent referendum on Kurdish independence.

In the summer of 2014, fierce fighting broke out between Isis, which has now proclaimed a caliphate and changed its name to the Islamic State (IS), and Kurdish troops. The Kurds were driven into retreat but tried to go on the counter-offensive with the help of the Syrian-Kurdish militia PYD and the Turkish-Kurdish PKK. Despite this unique coordinated action for the region, the Kurds were pushed back and the capital Erbil was threatened. IS advances forced a couple of hundred thousand people to flee and a humanitarian catastrophe threatened, when the United States began bombing the IS front line in August, at the same time as supplies were dropped from the air to those in need. The most vulnerable were the Kurdish religious minority Yazidis, who were threatened with genocide.

Temporary agreement

Just as the Kurds have been closer to an independent state than ever before, their autonomy began to be threatened for the first time in over 20 years. But the threat from IS forced co-operation between the Kurds and the Iraqi state. The Iraqi army and air force began fighting the jihadists side by side with the Kurdish peshmerga. The governments of Baghdad and Erbil agreed on the terms of Kurdish oil exports. For the time being, the Kurds saw IS as a greater threat than the Iraqi state. In the fall of 2016, the peshmerga participated in a coordinated offensive with the Iraqi army and Shiite militias to retake the city of Mosul from IS.

Kurdish forces pushed back IS but were criticized by the UN and other international organizations for simultaneously expelling Arabs from areas outside Kurdish autonomy and destroying Arab villages. In domestic politics, the Kurdish government also had problems. President Barzani remained without a new election and said he would not resign until Kurdistan declared independence. Economic problems in the wake of reduced oil prices led to difficulties in paying salaries to government employees.


In June 2017, Barzani took a new step and called for a referendum on independence. Despite opposition from Baghdad and strong warnings from the outside world, the referendum was held on September 25 in the autonomous Kurdish region and some disputed areas claimed by the Kurds, such as Kirkuk.

The result would not be binding, but strong support for the yes side was said to give the Kurdish government a stronger mandate to negotiate with Baghdad for independence. But despite the fact that almost 93 percent of the participants voted yes, the chances of a separate Kurdish state, created in a peaceful way, looked small.

The Iraqi government sent the army to Kirkuk, where it occupied the entire province almost without resistance, with its oil fields and some other smaller areas also controlled by the Kurds outside the three autonomous provinces. About 100,000 Kurdish civilians were reported fleeing into the autonomous region. The loss of Kirkuk was a severe setback for the Kurdish regional government, but the rapid military retreat also tore up old wounds in relations between the KDP and the PUK. The KDP accused the rival of ordering a retreat in consultation with the Baghdad government, while the PUK claimed that the KDP’s initiative for the referendum threatened the entire autonomy.

The Iraqi government also tried in other ways to stifle the Kurdish economy by closing the international airspace over Kurdistan and trying to persuade Iran and Turkey to close the land borders. Turkey, which has enjoyed good economic cooperation with Iraqi Kurds, saw an independent Kurdish state as a dangerous inspiration for its own Kurdish population.

Today, Iraq’s Kurds have a new generation of leaders. The failure of the referendum led to the resignation of Massoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani (Iraqi Federal President) died in 2017. But autonomy has a KDP-dominated government and the Barzani clan holds the top posts. The old challenges remain, mainly to make relations with Iraq’s central government work, but also internal Kurdish antagonisms and the sensitive relationship with Turkey, which continues to strike at PKK bases in the mountains. In addition, great efforts remain to be made to rebuild the city of Mosul, which is heavily ravaged by IS and the fighting that took place when the movement was driven out.

The Kurds in Iraq 3