Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appeared to extend an olive branch to the breakaway Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in remarks in Paris on Thursday, urging Kurdish Peshmerga military forces to “work together” with Baghdad’s army.
Abadi demanded, however, that the Peshmerga submits to full Baghdad control despite its longstanding status as an arm of the KRG, a capacity in which it has acted as an essential deterrent to the spread of the Islamic State. The Iraqi military, in contrast, largely failed to protect Baghdad-controlled areas, dismissed by Peshmerga in the past as “too weak” to be trusted with protecting the integrity of the Iraqi state.
The Iraqi military and the Peshmerga collaborated on the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, an operation that began last year. At the time, however, Peshmerga leaders complained that the Iraqi military was too slow in eradicating Islamic State elements. ”
“With all the ammunition they [the Iraqis] have ultimately they are too weak,” Peshmerga military source Nazim Zinal told Kurdish outlet Rudaw in March 2016, as the battle for the outskirts of Mosul escalated. “We would have been near Mosul by now.”
Given the Peshmerga’s superior battlefield achievement, it seems, Abadi asserted Thursday he has no desire to see a confrontation between the weaker Iraqi army and the Peshmerga, despite the Iraqi Parliament’s demanding Abadi deploy Iraqi troops against the Peshmerga in disputed territories last week.
“I call on Peshmerga Forces to work together, as we [Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga Forces] did in the battle for Mosul,” Abadi told reporters in Paris, following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has volunteered to mediate talks between Erbil and Baghdad. “We do not want any confrontation or clashes, but we must impose federal authority, and no one can violate the federal authority in these areas.”
Abadi specifically requested the Peshmerga “become[s] a part of the Iraqi national forces, under the Iraqi Federal Government’s command, and to work with ours forces to implement Iraq’s authority in all these areas.”
“We are one country, with common interests, and federal authority must be applied according to the Constitution, both with regards [to] the border and the disputed areas,” he added.
While the Peshmerga is a legitimate military unit under the Iraqi constitution, it follows orders of KRG President Masoud Barzani, not Abadi or the Iraqi Parliament. Last week, the Iraqi Parliament ordered Abadi to send troops into Kirkuk – a multi-ethnic city currently administered by Erbil – and expel the Peshmerga.
Kirkuk falls outside of the traditional borders of Kurdistan and is home to Arab, Turkmen, and Kurdish populations. While originally not under KRG control, the Iraqi army fled Kirkuk when the Islamic State attacked it in 2014, leaving the Peshmerga to fend off colonization by the jihadist group. The KRG included Kirkuk in the September 26 referendum asking residents under KRG control whether they would support the founding of an independent Kurdistan, angering Baghdad. Kirkuk boasts a significant oil reserve, making it valuable to both Baghdad and Erbil.
“The government has to bring back the oilfields of Kirkuk under the control of the oil ministry,” the Iraqi Parliament decreed last week.
On Thursday, Abadi requested the KRG consider “joint” management of Kirkuk.
This week, the Iraqi Parliament has moved to expel all Kurdish members who do not “express regret” at participating in the KRG referendum and strip them of parliamentary immunity to prosecute them for treason. The Iraqi Parliament’s moves belie statements from Abadi that he does not seek clashes with the KRG.
KRG officials have repeatedly stated that the referendum was non-binding and meant only to inform Erbil of the popularity of forming a sovereign state. They have further emphasized that no separation from the state of Iraq would occur without dialogue with Baghdad and requested a dialogue with Abadi specifically. “We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” Abadi said at the time.