The U.S. Must Support Our Kurdish Allies Who Defeated ISIS
Washington D.C., Oct. 17, 2017–Early Sunday morning, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) dominated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, began their assault on Kirkûk, in an unprovoked attack on Kurdistan. Before the day’s end on Monday, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) forces, the Peshmerga, withdrew from the city, the Kurdish militias that initially remained were forced to retreat, and Baghdad’s forces had taken control of the city.
Kirkûk is an oil-rich, historically-Kurdish city. It was seen as a key city of Kurdistan for centuries, with special significance in the culture and history of Kurds. After the Ba’athist party took over Iraq in the 1960’s, the city and surrounding areas underwent decades of ethnic cleansing, with Kurdish villages destroyed, forced displacement, and a policy of replacing Kurds with Arabs to change the population makeup. In 2003, the Peshmerga freed Kirkûk from Ba’athist control. For years after, control of Kirkûk remained disputed, until the Iraqi army fled ISIS in June 2014, and the KRG Peshmerga took control of and defended Kirkûk against the so-called Islamic State.
On September 25, 2017, Southern Kurdistan, the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, held a referendum on independence. The non-binding referendum was voted in favor by an overwhelming majority of about 93%. Tehran, Baghdad, Ankara, and others vehemently opposed the independence referendum, threatened sanctions and military force, and have since isolated Southern Kurdistan, including bans on flights and closed borders. This, along with the receding territorial control of ISIS, brought the dispute over Kirkûk to a head, when the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi demanded that the KRG nullify the referendum results, hand over the airport, military base, and oil fields.
The militias that spearheaded the assault on Kirkûk, yesterday, are primarily Iranian-aligned and have held increasing influence in Iraq since the massive failures of the Iraqi security forces to defend against ISIS. The Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi, was formed in 2014, uniting existing militias under the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and incorporated into the Iraqi armed forces in December, 2016. Not only are key militias in the PMU used as proxy forces for Tehran’s influence in Iraq, they are a threat to US allies and a destabilizing force, exacerbating the conflict among ethnic groups in Iraq, with Shiite dominant militias that engage in human rights abuses and sectarian attacks.
The Kurds have been America’s best allies in the region for years. From fighting Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party to being the key fighting forces that has pushed back and are defeating ISIS–both the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds. They have been secular, democratic friends to the United States, in a region with plenty of enemies and jihadist militants. The US needs to back the Kurds and stop the occupation of Kirkûk as well as the advances by the PMU and Iraqi government into Kurdistan. The US is the only ally who can successfully intervene and it’s in the best interest of the Kurds, the US, and the stability of the region. If the US does not intervene, it is certain that the Peshmerga will return to Kirkûk and other recently taken areas, sparking far more bloodshed, and turning our backs on our friends, the Kurds.