As part of their ongoing offensive against the Islamic State, Iraq’s coalition of mainly Shi’a militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in cooperation with the Iraqi armed forces have recently pushed north, coming close to Kurdish positions. From 2008 to 2014, there were minor altercations in territories disputed between the Kurds and Baghdad in Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul provinces between the mainly-Shi’a Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces.  Since summer 2014, however, the presence of the Islamic State has largely acted as a buffer between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi government and PMF forces. Meanwhile, the Kurds have used the presence of the Islamic State to secure most former Iraqi Army positions in disputed territories, such as in oil-rich Kirkuk (Rudaw, June 12, 2014). However, as a result of the Shi’a militas’ recent push northward, there has been speculation over the potential for renewed conflict between Shi’a and Kurdish forces.
In the context of these tensions, the key Kurdish players are Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish political parties, which enjoys good relations with Iran and with Iraq Shi’a political factions. The other main Kurdish party, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), however, enjoys less warm relations with Iran. The dynamics between these Kurdish groups and with Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a groups will determine the potential for Shi’a-Kurdish conflict, and with it, the potential for this rivalry to distract both parties from the conflict against the Islamic State.
The PUK’s territory borders Iran, and the PUK’s Peshmerga fighters control most of the Kurdish territory that is near the positions of Iraq’s Shi’a militias. In addition, both the PUK governor of Kirkuk and Shi’a parties in the city think that it is better for Kirkuk to be an independent province, instead of being annexed into the official Kurdistan region. Part of the reason for this is that the PUK fears it could lose influence in Kirkuk, if the province and city is annexed and run from the capital of the Kurdistan region, Erbil, which is controlled by the KDP. This situation has generally helped to prevent friction between the PUK and Shi’a militias, particularly due to the links between the PUK and Iran. “We have no problem with them; all the time we have meetings with them [Peshmerga leaders],” Abu Tahir al-Bashiri, a leader of a Shi’a militia in Kirkuk, told Jamestown.  “Barzani does not represent all Kurds, there are other parties like the PUK,” he said.
Similarly, a prominent PUK Peshmerga commander has praised the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (NRT, March 9). Further cementing such ties with Iran and Shi’a militias, the PUK’s Peshmerga forces have been actively fighting the Islamic State since June in some of the disputed territories around Diyala and Kirkuk to secure the Baghdad-Kirkuk road, often with coordination with Shi’a militias and the Iraqi government (Kurdistan Tribune, April 24). In addition, on February 18, a co-commander of a Shi’a militia visited PUK Peshmerga frontlines in Kirkuk in Maktab Khalid and Mullah Abdullah.  Also, in April, the veteran Peshmerga leader Haji Mahmoud visited the Shi’a militias in Kirkuk province.  More recently, underlining these links, the Peshmerga in PUK-controlled zones and Shi’a militias in April coordinated during offensives against the Islamic State on the outskirts of Kirkuk (Independent, April 20). These developments illustrate that relations between the PUK, Shi’a groups and Iran are generally cordial. Nevertheless, there were tensions recently in the town of Tuz Khurmato and in the town of Jawlala, which Shi’a militias left after being threatened by a Peshmerga leader (IraqOilReport.com, May 9; Xendan, May 8).
However, while there is some coordination on the frontlines between the PUK and the Shi’a militias, there is generally no such cooperation between the Shi’a and the KDP Peshmerga. Tensions between the KDP and Iran-backed Shi’a militias have been building for some time. From 2012 to 2013, Barzani, the Kurdistan region’s president and head of the KDP, angered Iranian-backed Shi’a political factions in Iraq by supporting the Sunni protests that erupted against the government in December 2012 (Today’s Zaman, May 12, 2013). As a result, when Mosul fell in June 2014 and Kurdish forces secured positions of the Iraqi army, Qais al-Khazali, the leader of the influential Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shi’a militia, accused Barzani of working together with the Islamic State and with former Sunni Baathist leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri to destroy Iraq (Shafaq, June 15, 2014).
Since then, tensions have increased further. For instance, in July 2014, KDP-linked Peshmerga fighters secured two oil fields in Kirkuk, and Barzani also hosted Arab Sunni leaders who held a “revolutionary” conference against Baghdad in Erbil (Kurdistan Regional Government, July 11, 2014; Al-Monitor, July 28, 2014). In addition, as a further ongoing irritation to Shi’a militias, the controversial Sunni leader Ali Hathem, who has spoken out against Shi’a militias, lives in KDP-controlled Erbil. For his part, when Mosul fell, Barzani rejected Iranian pressure to actively support Baghdad in retaking Sunni Arab areas, in what he feared would potentially become a sectarian Shi’a-Sunni war. Moreover, irritating Baghdad further, in July 2014, he said the Kurds were planning a referendum for an independent Kurdish state and also a referendum to annex disputed areas, including Kirkuk. These dynamics changed to some extent after the Islamic State attacked the Kurdistan region in August, following which the Iranians played a key role in saving Erbil, leading to Barzani publicly thanking Iran (Reuters, November 12, 2014; Press TV, August 11, 2014). More recently, the prime minister of Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, met with Iranian security officials, including General Qasem Rezai, the head of Iran’s border guard force, which is potentially suggestive of attempts to improve relations (KRG Cabinet, April 23).
Potential for Escalation
The potential for Shi’a-Kurdish tensions to escalate was illustrated from late 2014 when, after the Islamic State’s advances in August, Iraq’s Shi’a militias and PUK Peshmerga cooperated in September 2014 to break the Islamic State siege on the Shi’a Turkmen town of Amerli and to capture the town of Jawlala on November 23, 2014 (al-Jazeera, September 1, 2014; al-Jazeera, November 24, 2014). This success, however, led to small incidents and tensions between Kurds and Shi’a fighters in the provinces of Diyala and Kirkuk. In particular, on February 7, Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Corps Shi’a militia visited Amerli and promised to send Shi’a militia reinforcements to Kirkuk (Burathanews.com, February 8). The visit and al-Ameri’s statement notably angered the KDP, which feared Shi’a militias could threaten Kurdish control of Kirkuk, although al-Ameri had also met the PUK’s governor of Kirkuk, who wants Kirkuk to be more independent from KDP-controlled Erbil (Al-Monitor, February 12, 2014). In response, the Kurdish president Barzani himself visited Kirkuk just a few days later, on February 17 (Rudaw, February 18). In the wake of Barzani’s vist, a Peshmerga spokesperson announced that forces from outside Kirkuk could only enter in the future with permission from the Kirkuk authorities and Peshmerga forces (Kirkuknow, February 18). Despite this, a Shi’a militia presence—mostly recruited from the local Shi’a Turkmen community in the Taza district, which had been the victim of Islamic State attacks—has remained in Kirkuk province, especially around Tuz Khurmato (AP, February 17; IB Times, June 18, 2014). “They are fighting together… They are not even one meter away from each other in some places,” said a Shi’a Turkmen politician of PUK and Shi’a Turkmen forces in Taza, Daquq, Tuz Khurmato and Amerli.  Tensions in the Kirkuk area have persisted since then, with Baghdad recently reportedly trying to recruit 10,000 fighters in former KDP zones of control (Basnews, April 14). Underlining KDP sensitivity, however, Haydar Shesho, who created his own Yazidi militia in the Sinjar region, was arrested by the KDP in April for creating an illegal Shi’a militia (NRT, April 7).
Although the conflict in Iraq is often portrayed as a conflict between Shi’as, Kurds and Sunnis, the developments and dynamics mentioned above show that there are many conflicting internal political and tribal divisions and tensions, including among the Kurds. However, despite some recent tensions and speculation over the potential for conflict between the Kurds and Shi’a militias, there has been a considerable amount of military cooperation against the Islamic State. Moreover, Kurdish and Shi’a forces cannot afford to fight each other as long as the fight against the Islamic State continues. Thus, without a major crisis—for instance, caused by Kurdish President Barzani attempting to unilaterally annex the disputed territories without approval from Baghdad (as he threatened to do in July)—it seems unlikely that Kurdish control over these areas will actively be challenged by Shi’a militias, and, therefore, the status quo will continue. However, tensions could still erupt if there are fresh disputes between Baghdad and Erbil, for instance, over budgetary issues, as happened prior to the rise of the Islamic State, and/or if there are fresh attempts by Baghdad to forcibly challenge or limit Kurdish control of Kirkuk. Another potential source of tension is if Baghdad attempts to recruit fighters in KDP zones of control, particularly on and around the frontlines around Sinjar and Mosul where Kurdish and Shi’a cooperation will be most critical to the defeat of the Islamic State.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a political analyst specializing in issues concerning Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.
1. See “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line,” International Crisis Group, July 2009, https://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/iraq-iran-gulf/iraq/088-iraq-and-the-kurds-trouble-along-the-trigger-line.aspx.
2. Author’s interview with Abu Tahir al-Bashiri, a leading member of a Shi’a militia operating in the Kirkuk province. He was interviewed in a Shi’a militia building inside Kirkuk, February 11, 2015.
3. Author’s interview with a Peshmerga commander in Daquq, May 7, 2015.
4. A Shi’a militia Facebook page from the area: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%85%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%B2%D8%A9/1471023529853563?fref=photo.
5. Author’s interview with Fawzi Haydar Hassan, vice-head of the al-Hakim bureau in Kirkuk, February 11, 2015.