What the KRG’s Loss of Kirkuk Means for Iraq

Masoud Barzani image being destroyed in Kirkuk

Iraqi forces tear down a portrait of Masoud Barzani in Southern Kirkuk (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)

By Max J. Joseph

Too many takes on Kirkuk have left me cringing. From Kurds, Arabs, Westerners and pretty much everyone else. Observing the mixture of hysteria and celebration was profound and jarring enough to provoke me into this small piece of commentary. This piece won’t be focused on the small details concerning logistics and troop movements ongoing throughout the northern territories at the time of publishing, but what I think they represent and how we got here.

As part of my MSc thesis 8 years ago or so, I wrote that Kirkuk should be under Federal Government control and eventually given special status in accordance with Iraqi constitutional law, satisfying all segments of its diverse population. No part of that once relatively popular solution included the complete fragmentation and breakdown of Kurdish security forces and a political sundering so vast it might spell the end of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) itself. But that’s where we are now.


There is no doubt that including the “disputed” territories in the unilaterally imposed referendum is proving to be the fatal misstep (in quotes because I’ve never accepted the “dispute”, and don’t want to dignify KRG claims on lands belonging to Assyrians and other minorities outside of the KRI). The Barzani family and its allies within the PUK and other, smaller proxies made the calculation that they would have more leverage, more clout, and a tighter grip on the aspirations of the Kurdistan Region if they delivered this particular referendum question to the people, whatever the fallout afterwards.

Western actors made no secret of their opposition to it, nevermind regional actors such as Turkey and Iran. Nevertheless, the referendum was confirmed the night before its scheduled execution in all its shambolic glory. Voting patterns betrayed endemic corruption: ballot boxes were either stuffed or shuttled away secretly according to eyewitnesses, in keeping with previous elections and referenda conducted by the KRG. Residents were harassed by Kurdish asayish calling and knocking on their doors, state employees were bused to polling stations and watched over carefully by armed soldiers.

What was meant to be an expression of the Kurdish peoples’ legitimate will was transformed into a ploy by illegitimate KRG leaders to have more cards to play in their negotiations with Baghdad. The miscalculation on the KRG’s part was thinking these negotiations would even take place given the nature of the referendum question put forward, or how much it would provide Baghdad a newfound confidence to reject any meeting using its result as a staging ground for any deal-making.

Kirkuk was the only thing the KRG could easily be isolated on, as opposed to lands further north where more complications would have arisen in response to this kind of assertive display of Federal authority. Even with these complications however, it seems Federal Government forces are pushing further north after their political victory in Kirkuk, with reports of peshmerga positions being abandoned in Sinjar and the rest of the Nineveh Plain. The KRG gambled and lost, and that was very much the Barzani family’s call. Greed is a horrible thing, and it remains their cardinal sin.

KDP vs PUK and the Rhetoric of Treachery

A lot of statements, party-focused slander and rumours are circulating among KRG media and Kurdish individuals in the aftermath of Kirkuk. The infighting and self-flagellation really is something to behold. Yet, it truly boggles the mind how this is being interpreted, especially from my vantage point (of being underground and looking up at this mess).

Some Kurds are saying that the lack of bloodshed and violence on the part of the peshmerga and its commanders represents a grand betrayal. That they should have defended the city against all comers. Ex Governor Karim desperately asked ordinary citizens to take up arms and resist before he himself fled to Erbil. Peshmerga commanders were interviewed by KRG media and they promised “massacres” if Kirkuk was approached by Federal forces. None of this happened, and there is a weird air of regret and mourning wafting around the commentary on the internet.

The relevant point here on Kirkuk remains the same for me: the city should be administered in a fair way which represents the people of the city, and not as a vehicle to fill the coffers of the Barzani family. Individuals aligned with the KDP and PUK have taken to social media and declaring each other traitors. No doubt, images of peshmerga crying after having fled can be categorized as the anguish of terrified soldiers, of stolen hopes and dreams, and worry for family members. But why has it even come to this? Why was it so important for the KRG to assert itself as the sole overseers of a clearly heterogeneous city which they could be cornered on and forced into an embarrassing withdrawal in this way?

The KRG, dominated for years by the politically bankrupt KDP, were stubborn enough to go ahead with the referendum in the face of almost universal opposition. The problem was that they went one step further by incorporating post-2014 newly conquered lands into the question. I’ve said this so many times: acquiring leverage for expansion and not independence had always been the purpose of the referendum. The KDP et al had calculated that they needed ownership of Kirkuk’s oil for any prospect of independence, so expansion was the first priority. From the peoples’ perspective, there simply is no real independence with a black market economy controlled by autocrats. The referendum was a heist, and Baghdad was gradually emboldened enough to foil it.

This is not meant to antagonize the rights, well-being and desire for self-determination of the Kurdish people. All people should have equal rights and be free to live in dignity. What is beyond doubt for me however is how people are expected to do this under the auspices of a kleptocratic mafia? Did Kurds really think it was possible?

“Big Picture” Nationalism

A phrase I’m sarcastically coining these days: big picture nationalism is a brand of nationalism that whitewashes the historical and present crimes and failures of leaders within a community (for the greater good they are hoping for).

So many people have decried the use of Western armour and weapons deployed in the reassertion of Federal authority in Kirkuk displacing the peshmerga, but where was the outrage when Western weapons were used by KDP-controlled Rojava Peshmerga units against local Yazidi fighters in Sinjar?

So many people have lamented this historic retreat from Kirkuk, but where were the lamentations for Yazidis and Assyrians when Peshmerga disarmed and abandoned them to ISIS in 2014, only to return years later and declare themselves their liberators and bosses? (Is oil is more important than lives?)

So many people have demonstrated against actions targeting the Kurdish people, but why is there so much silence in the face of an illegitimate and divisive president with countless deaths on his head?

So many people are calling the PUK traitors when big picture nationalism entails they probably support the whims of a family who collaborated with Saddam against his own people after Anfal to retain power.

In the face of genocide, absolutely untold levels of corruption, and a list of betrayals so damning nobody should be allowed back from, Barzani’s regime and its policies still enjoy the support (albeit begrudging in many parts) of large segments of the local Kurdish population. It seems to me that there is the vague hope that these lands and therefore Kurdistan’s future can and should be secured in any way possible, even if it means backing a tyrant. It is this dream of Kurdistan first and then we can deal with Barzani’s dictatorship later, when in reality, the only thing that is real right now is Barzani’s dictatorship. Yet a little voice calls out: free yourself from this ghetto and perhaps greater freedoms lie ahead.

Unless this is meaningfully addressed by the Kurdish people, dreams will remain dreams, and wounds and divisions will deepen. When Kurds voted “yes” to Barzani’s referendum, they weren’t voting on independence, they were voting on the legitimacy of the actors who were administering it and their own sordid ambitions. People know that al-Abadi can be voted out if he fails to deliver. That is reassuring and it makes him act accordingly. Barzani has never had such pressure, and that is a large part of why we are where are today.

The KRG: One of the Biggest Failures in Governance in Recent Memory?

Even with billions of dollars in funding and aid, weapons, mentoring, Western hand-holding and protection, a near enough limitless output of propaganda, media access, long-term concentrated lobbying efforts, and backing from every section of Western society, the KRG has proven to be fundamentally inept at good governance. After all, what has all of this time and energy produced? A redundant parliament, shadowy institutions, fatally divided and bickering security forces built along tribal lines— all being sucked through a fiscal black hole. That is the sum of everyone’s investment and support.

Imagine pinning your hopes and dreams regarding the protection of Kirkuk on a fighting force that’s dependent on already alienated foreign powers for its salaries. Its no wonder a faction of the PUK reportedly caved to Baghdad’s authority, setting off the unfolding domino effect in Kirkuk and the wider region. Its no wonder Federal troops have entered unopposed into Sinjar. Its no wonder Peshmerga are reportedly withdrawing from positions in Bashiqa and other areas in Nineveh.

Assyrians and many other people in territories the KRG have expanded into are literally praying for the sight of Baghdad-aligned armour rolling through their neighbourhoods and tearing down newly installed portraits of Barzani. That is the reality of how bad the KRG is perceived, but you wouldn’t know it because of all of the media noise and heckling. With Baghdad, minorities are one degree of separation from sovereign power. With the KRG, we are two degrees away, and underneath a layer of corruption and nepotism so thick we can’t see any route up and out.

Yes, there is relative security in the KRG, but that is because it is a police state. Yes, you will be safe if you swear allegiance, not to a feudal king or a lord one thousand years ago, but a political party in the information age. Yes, you might start resenting the current regime, but you can’t criticize it and there is no hope it will ever change. If there was any hope, the KDP would not still be the only dominant party, and its opposition would not be as pathetic and skeletal as they are now. Where is the alternative? Where is the anger manifesting inward and producing change?

The Federal Government, for all its innumerable faults, is more democratic. There is more potential to improve, to access things, to change things, and to work towards something than there is with the tribalism and patronage systems defining the KRG. That is backed up by democratic elections and a functioning parliament. What remains dysfunctional today in Baghdad has more scope to be fixed but the same cannot be said of the KRG. Minorities need strong central government, because strong central governments are the only bodies who can afford to decentralize. They are secure enough to do so.


With emerging reports of Federal forces arriving in Sinjar and Bashiqa and the ensuing peshmerga retreat from those areas (their second mass retreat in three years against two different forces) it still remains to be seen how far these Federal forces will go. If they arrive in Alqosh, the besieged town in the far north of the Nineveh Plain, there will be a joyous celebration by its residents. Alqosh’s residents proudly waved Iraqi flags which served to protest the removal of their mayor and imposition of the KDP stooge, Lara Yousif Zaia, as well as make clear their position on the KRG-imposed referendum on their town (which went ahead, returning over 4000 yes votes, despite reality on the ground indicating no more than 400 people voted, and overwhelmingly “no”).

Asserting Federal authority back into Nineveh after years of KDP domination represents a loosening of the noose around the necks of resident minority groups. From being sidelined and co-opted and divided politically, having their lands stolen, and their security totally unreliable — these groups were on the brink of annihilation. Going forward, this arrangement should now halt, or perhaps even reverse.

The security vacuum left by the peshmerga will now be filled by federal forces and aligned groups— meaning for Yazidis, PMU forces aligned with the Federal Government and for Assyrians, the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU). With the NPU, Assyrians already have in place a trained fighting force (recognized by the US and the coalition) ready to be bolstered, equipped and expanded by the Federal Government in our ancestral lands.

Understating how important this is does the NPU’s political mission and its ideological foundation a disservice — this is a force of Assyrians from Nineveh who had formed as a response to ISIS’ onslaught on their towns. They have partaken in the liberation of Assyrian towns and villages alongside the Iraqi Army and coalition forces, but have been cut off from the Northern Nineveh Plain by the expanded peshmerga line which has isolated towns such as Telskuf, Alqosh, Batnaya, and Bashiqa, where many of the NPU’s soldiers are from.

Recent events are proving that their political positioning within the Iraqi security landscape has been astute and well-informed. Many have doubted their alignment, their purpose and even their refusal to engage in armed conflict with peshmerga forces encircling Assyrian towns, but this patience and pragmatism is seemingly paying off with the reassertion of Federal authority.

Every End is a New Beginning

I say this with no real exaggeration: Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has played his hand masterfully. Between taking the fight to ISIS, controlling the Hash’d al Shabi, managing relationships with Western powers as well as Turkey and Iran, navigating the crash in oil prices, plus the fractious relationship with the KRG, he has genuinely proven to be a very capable leader. His re-election after four years in office looks almost a certainty now.

The KRG in had everything seemingly on its side. Any misstep by the Federal Government would have been magnified as a disaster, but these missteps have not transpired. What has instead come to pass has been a considered and assertive approach by the Federal Government, even in the face of endless provocation by the KRG and regional powers. Where people have tried to escalate matters and call for blood, al-Abadi has called for calm and reconciliation. Consider this for a moment: Federal forces marched into oil-rich Kirkuk (some commentators hilariously started dubbing it “the Kurds’ Jerusalem”, or “the new Kobane”) almost without incident. They made no secret of their intention to do this in the days preceding and it came about as a result of political deal-making headed by al-Abadi in the background.

I am not going to speculate on where the KRG goes from here, if it goes anywhere at all. It just seems cruel at this stage given the deluge of rumours abound regarding regional fractures and new alliances. What is clear is that this crisis is one the Kurdish people must address in a room full of mirrors — something I’m not optimistic about given an amplification of the ruinous siege mentality cultivated by the old parties. Nevertheless, there is nobody left to blame for this state of affairs but their own, admittedly unelected leaders.

What many Kurds deem a betrayal, I cant help but feel relieved that very little blood was shed. Kurdish affairs have long orbited around the bloated and parasitical old parties and their whims. These chronic failings, which I and others who have been attacked, derided, and mocked for repeatedly pointing out, have been endemic and unaddressed for years. Now you can see the fruits of these failings and how they have contributed to Iraq growing in confidence as a sovereign state, a state many were classifying as “failed”, in the most volatile region in the world. If the heavily maligned, “failed” Iraqi state managed to completely outmaneuver the KRG politically and militarily, how inept must the latter be, considering the support it has received?

As always, I return to the Assyrian perspective. For us, recent events illustrate a resurgent Iraq, and I think (with a healthy degree of caution and hesitation) that may be a good thing for us and our future in the country. No doubt, it’s clear that the collapse of KRG positions in the disputed territories has been welcomed by the vast majority of Nineveh’s residents and the worldwide diaspora, but much hard work lies ahead in undoing a decade of hurt and neglect by both the KRG and the Federal Government respectively. We should enter this new epoch with open minds, but with the knowledge that things may quickly descend into oppression and tyranny once again. We know the signs now. Call them out ruthlessly and say “never again.”


Max J. Joseph is an Assyrian artist and writer focusing on minority group issues within the Middle East. His work has included presenting research within the European Parliament detailing the security situation for minorities in the Nineveh Plain, Iraq. He holds a BA Philosophy and an MSc International Public Policy, where his thesis centered on addressing the Assyrian question in Iraq post-2003.

Comments (7)

Ejder Memis said:

This drivel went stale pretty quick. It probably lasted shorter than it took to write. Peshmerga are back in Kirkuk, the treasonous PUK faction arrested, and Barzani’s standing enhanced.

October 19th, 2017, 12:20 am


D. said:

This take on the referendum is ridiculous — there were lots of observers there who reported no such impropriety. Why should the KRG even engage in such shenanigans for the referendum? The people overwhelmingly support independence anyhow, so why cheat?

Also, if it was all just about gaining control of the disputed territories, the KRG would have just held a referendum there asking if they wanted to become part of Kurdistan, as laid out in Article 140. Then they could have held the general referendum on independence.

The incident the article compares Baghdad’s grab of Kirkuk to is a skirmish in Sinjar wherein KDP-allied Syrian Kurds (who probably were not even using American small arms) clashed with PKK-aligned Yezidis. 2 dead. This is comparable for the purpose of finding hypocrisy about concern for Baghdad’s use of American weaponry against the Kurds? Seriously?

Other things, like the veiled reference to the KDP’s collaboration with Saddam for 1 week in 1996, leave out more than they include — such as that the PUK was collaborating with Iran at the time, amount to intentionally deceptive half-truths. A sordid tale to be sure, but at least provide some fair context if you’re going to refer to it.

“When Kurds voted “yes” to Barzani’s referendum, they weren’t voting on independence, they were voting on the legitimacy of the actors who were administering it and their own sordid ambitions.” Absolutely ridiculous. 93% of voters voted for Barzani? The hubris of this writer is shocking. It was a vote for independence, whether you like Barzani or not.

“The KRG: One of the Biggest Failures in Governance in Recent Memory?” Outrageous. With a lot less support than Baghdad, the KRG got its electricity grid going quite well, paved roads, rebuilt villages, gave people jobs, took in more refugees per capita than just about anywhere else on earth, fought ISIS, built universities and did a thousand other things that Baghdad has not — with a lot less money. The bias is blinding. He should look to Baghdad if he wants the biggest governance failure in recent memory.

“Assyrians and many other people in territories the KRG have expanded into are literally praying for the sight of Baghdad-aligned armour rolling through their neighbourhoods and tearing down newly installed portraits of Barzani.” Incredible. That’s why they fled to Kurdistan and not Baghdad controlled-areas when ISIS came, I suppose. That’s why the only thriving Chrisitan community still in Iraq is in Kurdistan (in Ainkawa/Erbil, no less, the seat of Barzani power).

Anyhow, I’m stopping reading at the “Nineveh” section. While the KRG has its problems, this is just a sickening level of bias from the author. There’s a limit to what one can stomach. I did scroll down to the end, and I see the author is diaspora Assyrian. I should not be surprised. See this column for a take on Assyrian diaspora (in contrast to most Assyrians actually in Kurdistan or Iraq): http://www.rudaw.net/english/opinion/21012016

October 19th, 2017, 11:38 am


Jan said:

Thanks for writing this.

October 20th, 2017, 5:19 am


Ghufran said:

It is a deja vu of 1991. The US will abandon the Kurds unless Israel stages a coup and manages to reverse course at the White House. The generals do not see the benefit of creating new enemies in the region just to please Israel but I do not think the anti Kurd group of nations should assume that this is final, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and Trump may be tempted to do something similar using Iran as an excuse.

October 22nd, 2017, 1:00 pm


ALAN said:

America is the one, who looked for the Kurds and not the other way round. So to say about abandoning the Kurds is an incorrect expression. It could be giving up a former American goal or something like that. The Kurdish people have so many friends around the world and they were with the Kurdish people at the moment of adversity.
There is no such thing as /the anti Kurd group of nations/. there are only failed governments with a failed history of running their countries.
/ using Iran as an excuse / Why is an excuse? And Iran is exerting momentum outside its entire geographical borders.

October 22nd, 2017, 4:16 pm


Ghufran said:

The Kurds are only relevant to decision makers in Washington if they help Israel, antagonize Iran or both. Nothing has changed since 1979.

November 1st, 2017, 10:37 pm


ALAN said:

Turkey and Iran are still on a dangerous course, fueled by profound disagreement over their respective core interests in Iraq and Syria.
Also Iran and Russia over their respective core interests too in Syria.
Understand firstly in your interests and relationships, then hang your failure on the Kurd.

November 2nd, 2017, 9:36 am