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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Moderation and caution should be the watchwords in a Kurdish crisis that could spiral out of control

It is time for everyone to pull back from the lines of confrontation and take a deep breath, writes Hussein Ibish

An Iraqi federal police vehicle on the streets of Kirkuk onThursday. Ako Rasheed / Reuters
An Iraqi federal police vehicle on the streets of Kirkuk onThursday. Ako Rasheed / Reuters

Kurdistan regional government chief Masoud Barzani had briefly basked in the afterglow of an Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, which he insisted on and pushed through despite the warnings of all outside parties. And then, this week, the roof fell in all around him.

Mr Barzani could not have misplayed his hand more disastrously if he had tried. His supporters say that, for everyone other than the Kurds, there will never be a "convenient" time for a push towards Kurdish independence. That doesn't relieve Kurdish leaders from the responsibility of sensible national leadership that will advance, not severely harm, the cause of eventual de facto independence.

Hostile forces, including the Iraqi army, its counterterrorism units, popular mobilisation forces and Iranian Quds forces descended on a series of disputed territories in and around Kirkuk and have seized possession of about 80 per cent of Erbil’s oil resources.

The key factor has been Kurdish disunity in the face of Iranian determination. Mr. Barzani's rivals in the PUK, along with various other movements and even some of his own factions, essentially stepped aside for an Iranian-led offensive that the divided Kurds were unable to resist.

This was telegraphed by a statement by Bafel Talabani who presented the PUK stance as a responsible refusal to get involved in disputes that could start another war inside Iraq. However, of course, it was just as much an effort to turn Mr Barzani's mind-boggling miscalculations against him in domestic Kurdish politics.

General Qassem Suleimani, leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and head of the Iran's regional expeditionary vanguard, visited Kirkuk earlier this week and PUK leaders and other important Kurdish figures, were read the riot act. The Iranians and their allies made it very clear resistance would not be tolerated and that Tehran and Baghdad would combine, with the tacit, support of Ankara and Washington, their forces to crush Kurdish units trying to keep hold of Kirkuk and disputed oilfields.

This was obviously very bad news for the Kurds, but it did allow the PUK to begin to turn the screws on Mr Barzani and turn the development at least to their political advantage in their rivalry with him and his party.

Therefore when the Iraqis and the Iranians moved on the disputed territories, the PUK and the other groups essentially stepped aside. Apparently the Kurds are consolidating their forces to protect their last major oilfield; this is a very important goal. It's not in anybody's interest for the KRG to be totally bankrupt and non-functional.

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Meanwhile, making matters worse, Mr Barzani appears to have disappeared. The situation is so disastrous and anger against his miscalculations is running so deep, that he is, it would seem, effectively in hiding against a potential assassination. This is certainly what it looks like and if he is not trying to communicate that message, it's another terrible miscalculation.

But the situation has become so delicate and fraught that almost anything within the realm of possibility could now happen.

The Kurds are clearly reeling, still trying to comprehend the scope, swiftness and magnitude of their losses, and the fact that their own disunity was the key factor contributing to that.

Mr Barzani and his supporters note that Baghdad and Tehran have long coveted the recapture of Kirkuk, and that they are using the referendum as a cynical excuse for acting on that long-standing territorial ambition. That's probably true, but what Mr Barzani and company need to explain is why they decided to help them in that endeavour so thoroughly.

The way that the referendum was carried out, despite serious and even dire warnings from all parties, including Washington, strongly indicated that in the aftermath of the vote, not only would nothing change on the ground, but also if Iran or its proxies moved to take advantage of the situation, the Kurds could expect no support from Ankara and Washington, let alone Baghdad. They left themselves with no friends whatsoever and nobody interested in protecting them from this kind of devastating defeat.

In the event, the reaction by Iran and its Iraqi proxies was far more furious and overwhelming than anyone had anticipated. And now everyone has made their points. The Kurds have held a referendum that they should have postponed and conducted in a different way at a different time. But it's over. Baghdad and Tehran have seized control of large amounts of territory and pitted the PUK against the KDP in a very dramatic way.

Haider Al Abadi, Iraq's prime minister, has played his hand quite well, although he does appear more dependent on Iran than ever. But with an eye to the election next year, he seems to be in a pretty strong position to win, if not to govern more independently.

It is time for everyone to pull back from the lines of confrontation and take a deep breath. More conflict, more punitive measures against the KRG, and more bitterness among the Kurds themselves, and between them and other Iraqis, will help nothing and no one.

This can all easily spiral out of control, harming everyone. It is an urgent time for moderation and caution now, on all sides.