Since the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) conquest over almost a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014, two entities have emerged as the most effective boots-on-the-ground battling the terror group. These forces include the Kurdistan Region Security Forces (Peshmerga and Asayish) and the better funded Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Hashd al-Shaabi).
While the Iraqi security forces have also played a key role in the operation to dissolve IS (especially in recent efforts to reclaim Mosul), the Peshmerga and Hashd al-Shaabi have signaled notable disaccord with each other’s policies and both differ in opinion regarding several critical areas related to, among other things, territory. These underlying differences have materialized in the form of contestation over the Kirkuk Governorate and Southern areas of Sinjar (Shingal).
Both Kirkuk and Shingal are included in the Iraqi Constitution’s “Article 140,” dubbed “Disputed Territories” which also encompasses other predominantly Kurdish-inhabited areas in Diyala, Salahadin, and Nineveh. This has long been a controversial issue, and for ten years, attempts to implement this article have been averted at all costs by Baghdad. In fact, it was only recently that the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security forces assumed control of much of the disputed territories due to the withdrawal of Iraqi troops.
The Hashd al-Shaabi, with its multiplex of different unorganized and devolved brigades, looks to be dissatisfied by the presence of the Region’s security forces in these areas. At times, they’ve disseminated anti-Kurdistan Region and Peshmerga rhetoric through their affiliated media mouthpieces. Such negative remarks have rightly been met with opposition and have regularly been rebuked by the KRG and its Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that recent efforts by the Hashd al-Shaabi in Southern areas of Shingal, in cooperation with opportunistic elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have raised suspicions within the Kurdistan Region. Moreover, figures from the Ministry of Peshmerga have stated that this move by the Shia militia constitutes a violation of a military cooperation agreement between Erbil and Baghdad made before the launch of the Mosul offensive.
There can be no doubt there are several prominent political figures in Baghdad (namely ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his associates) and others in Iran who support the Hashd al-Shaabi in conspiring against efforts to restore historically predominantly Kurdish areas into the Kurdistan Region. To this end, such sources have at times signaled their intentions to use the PMF (and other funded militias groups) as a proxy force to halt Kurdish aspirations.
However, this policy, from its inception, is counter-productive to the stability of the wider region and will likely beget further violence. Instead, the Hashd al-Shaabi should focus its efforts on countering the threat of IS and restoring peace and security in the country, as it was mandated to do when created in June 2014.
The group has nothing to gain from entering into a conflict with the Peshmerga and instead risks further exhausting its resources (finances and manpower) in what would undoubtedly be a costly hypothetical conflict. Nevertheless, there seems to be some consensus on the side of some factions within the Hashd al-Shaabi that believe conflict is not the solution to the issues between them and the Kurdistan Region (Peshmerga forces), and such notions should be actively encouraged.
Conversely, regarding some of the other, more hostile factions of the Hashd al-Shaabi, they should be careful not to underestimate the military power and motivation of the Peshmerga forces. Although they are not nearly as well armed or funded as the PMF, what the Kurdish forces lack in intangible resources, they make up for in determination and fortitude, as exemplified in their efforts against IS.
Additionally, the Hashd al-Shaabi should also be aware the KRG, and its Peshmerga forces, have amassed support among influential entities in the international community, who have signaled their ongoing support to the Peshmerga, even after the end of the war with IS.
Even so, the KRG and its security apparatus would benefit from readying itself to face all possible threats which may arise as a consequence of antagonistic factions within the Hashd al-Shaabi and any other threats which exist in the region. Such foresight necessitates strategic planning and military/security prowess, which will prove invaluable in ensuring peace prevails in the Region. And, while dialogue and diplomacy must always be visited as preliminary means of conflict resolution, preparations should be made to ensure the security of the Kurdistan Region is not compromised.
The Hashd al-Shaabi should be prepared to accept the result of any democratic referendum (as constitutionally stipulated in Article 140) to determine whether or not the aforementioned disputed territories wish to be governed by Baghdad or Erbil.
Indeed, many Kurds in Iraq will recall the phrase “Until Hamrin Mountain” (which refers to the area south of the Hamrin mountain chain) as being the historical, geographical border of the Kurdistan Region. Such a border, if left politically unresolved, will likely be amid the key points for future disputes between the Peshmerga and the Hashd al-Shaabi.
Barzani Hussein is an academic and analyst with a primary focus on contemporary Kurdish and Middle Eastern affairs.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan24, any related institutions, or organizations.