Authorities in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq have offered to suspend their push for independence after Baghdad stepped up its military offensive against Kurdish Peshmerga forces early last week.
The September 25 referendum to formalize independence appears to have been a miscalculation for the Kurdish Regional Government as well as President Masoud Barzani, who is now pushing for dialogue with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But Reuters reported on Wednesday that an Iraqi military offensive “would continue regardless.”
For the past ten days, Iraqi forces have launched an aggressive campaign to take back disputed territory gained by the Peshmerga as Iraqi and Kurdish forces cooperated in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Iraqi forces are also fighting to take control of security posts on the Kurdish-Turkish border and a crucial oil pipeline. In addition to putting its independence push on hold, the KRG has asked for an immediate ceasefire, and for “starting an open dialogue with the federal government based on the Iraqi Constitution.”
The United States initially tried to downplay the developing conflict as shots fired due to “a misunderstanding”. So far, 30,000 Kurds have been displaced in less than two weeks as a result of fighting and looting.
“It’s increasingly clear that they are making moves into some of the territory that is part of the recognized Kurdistan region,” said Marina Ottaway, Middle East Fellow The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Indeed, the Hashd al-Shabi Shia militia, which has been siding with Baghdad against the Kurds, has been fighting to take control of Rabi‘a, which is 25 miles south of Fish-Khabur, bordering Turkey and Syria. Fish-Khabur is strategically crucial as an oil pipeline crosses through there into Turkey.
“That area has always been under Kurdish control, “said Ottaway. “But that’s a development to be watched very, very carefully,” she added.
“And apparently, they have also made a move on a crossroad on the way from Mosul to Erbil that used to be controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government — so there are some indications, not that they’re set to march on Erbil, but that they’re closing in,” said Ottaway.
Baghdad had said, from the start, that it does not recognize the results of the referendum and had asked for the results to be “cancelled” before the start of any talks with Erbil.
Iran, meanwhile, announced the reopening of its border crossings with the KRG, which it had sealed in solidarity with Baghdad last week.