Iraq and Kurds on Brink of War

The Kurds, who control most of the northern third of Iraq and have long had a separate identity even while being under Saddam Hussein’s rule, recently voted overwhelmingly for independence. The current Iraqi government has moved troops in to seize greater control, pushing the country to the brink of a civil war.

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In deadly clashes that pitted two crucial American allies against each other, government troops seized the vital city of Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields, ousting the Kurdish forces who had controlled the region for three years in their effort to build an independent nation in the northern third of Iraq.

The Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq in a referendum three weeks ago. The United States, Baghdad and most countries in the region had condemned the vote, fearing it would fuel ethnic divisions, lead to the break up of Iraq and hobble the fight against the Islamic State.

Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are both essential elements of the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Both forces are supplied and trained by the United States.

Despite the resounding success of the referendum, Iraqi forces were able to take Kirkuk in a day and with little fight, partly because it is a multiethnic city of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, and partly because the Kurds themselves were divided.

Baghdad had forged an agreement with the Kurdish faction that controlled most of the strategic points of Kirkuk, allowing government forces to sweep into much of the city without firing a shot. But skirmishes with another Kurdish faction left nearly 30 dead and dozens wounded, according to local hospitals.

This is a very dangerous situation. The Kurds are surrounded by enemies, their ancestral homelands divided up a century ago when the national boundaries were set, leaving them a minority in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan. The governments of all of those countries view them as an enemy within to be contained, but they are also a longstanding ally of the United States. And if a wider war breaks out, they will likely have to fight that war on multiple fronts and against a united coalition of Iran and Iraq.

It does threaten progress against ISIS, as both the Kurds and the Iraqi government have been fighting separate battles against that group in different parts of the country. If they go to war against one another, ISIS could take advantage of that to retake territory they’ve lost. And we have pretty much the last person we should ever want in charge of our foreign policy to respond to it. I have a bad feeling about this.

Ideally, the Kurds should have their own country. They have an entirely separate identity and have had for hundreds of years, and the only reason they don’t is because of where western nations arbitrarily drew the boundaries on a map. But most of the oil in Iraq is in their territory and that nation cannot rebuild, or likely even survive as an entity, without those revenues. I don’t have a solution to this. I just know it’s bad.

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