At the forefront of the war on Islamic State, yet Arab suspicions of Kurds highlight failed state

Months of fierce fighting and several hundred coalition air-strikes later, the Islamic State (IS) finds itself largely on the defensive, but as a spate of attacks across Iraq clearly showed in recent days, IS is an adaptive and determined organization that is far from a finished force.

As recent Peshmerga advances around Mosul threatened to choke vital IS supply routes, IS militants launched a series of attacks on Kurdish positions to the south of Kirkuk. The aim of the move was to sow new fear amongst the people and show it can still strike at the heart of Kurdistan but also to divert Kurdish forces from the real IS prize – Mosul.

US-led coalition airstrikes have no doubt been in instrumental in keeping IS militants on the back foot, but the protracted and deadly battles have shown the limitations of airpower without an effective ground force.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani highlighted this very point, “The question is: is the policy one of containment, or to dislodge and destroy them?” adding, “In order to totally eradicate them, further action must be taken.”

Barzani rejected any notion of the Kurds spearheading an attack to wrest control of Mosul, to avoid any ethnic battle between Kurds and Arabs.

Such fears speak volumes about the fractured nature of the Iraqi landscape. Whilst Kurdish advances have proved pivotal against IS in recent months including protecting areas where the Iraqi army originally fled, some noises in Baghdad and in segments of the Sunni population have viewed Kurdish advances against IS and their defense of disputed territories with suspicion.

The Peshmerga have lost over 700 men since the start of the conflict with thousands more wounded. They have afforded protection to Arab areas not to mention hosting thousands of refugees. Furthermore, Kurds filled a security vacuum and didn’t oust Iraqi forces from Kirkuk and the like. What would have happened to such cities if IS had a free ticket to roam in or indeed if Kurdish forces were not protecting the city in recent days when IS launched attacks on Kirkuk?

As Barzani explained, “there is no loyalty to a country called Iraq. It really is important to find a formula for how to live together within the boundaries of what is called Iraq. Unless a formula is found, there will be more bloodshed and the country will remain a destabilizing factor in the region.”

And here is the problem, whilst Peshmerga have advanced against IS in the north, it is Shiite militias and not really an Iraqi army that have thwarted IS from the doors of Baghdad in Anbar and Diyala provinces.

A number of Sunni tribes are fighting IS but by large the disenfranchised Sunnis have not been enticed to fight IS forces. On the contrary, prior to the IS advance, Sunni dominated areas of Iraq where gripped with protests and violent skirmishes with security forces and some influential tribes welcomed IS with open arms.

Barzani played down any imminent joined attack on Mosul setting the fall of this year as a more realistic target. For any chance of IS to be eradicated, Iraq needs some semblance of an effective national force including the all-important Sunni components in Mosul.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

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