Getting Rid of IS: Back to the Disputed Territories

Mohammed Hussein

By Mohammed Hussein:

Kurdish forces’ recent advances to retake Sinjar and other northern areas of Mosul have generated discussions about the post Islamic State (IS) era in the territories disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi federal government. Who will control and run the territories after getting rid of IS has become a major issue. The majority of the discussions point to oil as the main factor behind the dispute; however, such conclusions look too simplified. Of course, oil and other natural resources are a main factor behind the problem, but it mainly derives from a failed political process. The ways that successive Iraqi governments have dealt with the problem over the past 50 years have added many complex dimensions to the issue.

The disputed territories range from Sinjar, on the northwest Iraq-Syria frontier, to Badrah, on the southwest of Iraq-Iran frontier. The areas include Kirkuk, and many towns and districts in the Nainava, Salahadin, Diyala, and Wast provinces. There are Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Kildo-Assirian peoples living together there. There is also religious diversity among the peoples including Muslims (Shia and Sunni), Christians, Yazidis and Kakais. These communities, mostly, have their own political agendas for shaping their areas’ destiny. The three major ethnicities, Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, have their own agendas which conflict with each other. For instance, the Kurdish agenda is to join the territories to the KRG while the Iraqi federal government wants to keep them under Baghdad’s control, with support of some local Turkmen, while other Turkmen have demanded the formation of their own ethnic region in the areas, especially Kirkuk.

The key factor behind the problem of disputed territories between the Arab-dominated Iraqi federal government and the KRG is ethnic tension. Moreover, the Arab-Kurd divide, with conflicting agendas, has been a “persistent fault-line” in Iraq’s history which quickly appeared as a core dispute after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to Peter Bartu, specialist in Middle Eastern conflicts (International Affairs).

For many historical and political reasons, the tension is much intensified between Kurds and Arabs, and this comes from their failed efforts in dealing with disputes since the1960s. As Bartu mentioned, “Previous negotiations on the extent of Kurdish autonomy in 1963, 1970–74, 1983 and 1991 had foundered on the questions of defining the Kurdish region, jurisdiction over mixed areas, and related processes of determining sectarian and ethnic preferences—that is, censuses and referendums.” This historical political failure is what has mainly complicated the dispute.

Again, the ethnic tension between Kurds and Arabs has led to many national-level conflicts and created a lack of trust and hostile atmosphere between them. Both Arabic and Kurdish Nationalist parties (backed by the Iraqi federal government and the KRG) have their own political, security, and military plans for the territories. After IS took control of huge portions of the Arab Sunni populated areas of Iraq, bordering the disputed territories, and even including some districts of them, the fight over the areas escalated between Kurds and IS militants. The Kurdish Peshmarga forces controlled Khanaqin, Duz-Khurmatu, Kirkuk, Makhmur, and some other sub-districts, but they also lost Sinjar, Bashiqa, Jalawla, As Sadiyah and some sub-districts in the Nainawah plain.

On November 24, 2014, Peshmarga forces alongside with Iraqi army and Shia militia forces retook Jalawla, As Sadiyah and their surrounding villages. Although combat with IS changed the dynamics of the struggle over the disputed territories, the basic ethnic tension between the KRG and Baghdad has stayed the same. Even though the Iraqi and Kurdistan government forces fought IS jointly, they have not reached an agreement about how to run and control the security of the disputed areas after IS. Even before kicking out IS militants in Jalawla, they were disputing over post-IS control of Jalawla, which is small mixed town in northern Diyala (iraqoilreport). Now it seems that they have the same problem over Sinjar and northern areas of Mosul, while they have reached an agreement about running and exporting Kirkuk’s oil via Kurdistan’s pipeline.

Here, we can see how ethnic tension could remain a bigger factor than IS threats and even oil ambitions. There are no oil-fields in Jalawla, and IS attacks have almost destroyed the town, while all its population live as internally displaced people (IDPs) in nearby KRG and Diyala areas. However, the dispute over Jalawla has been a big obstacle to KRG-Baghdad cooperation against IS.

In spite of the ethnic tensions, the disputed territories are also important to both Kurdistan and Baghdad for some geostrategic reasons. For Kurdistan, these areas comprise about 40% of the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the Kurdish narrative. They contain many oil-rich places, fertile agricultural lands, and commercial ports. For Iraq, in addition to the natural resources, the areas contain some Shia holy places that are in Daquq, south of Kirkuk, and this is a more sensitive factor than oil and natural resources for the Shia elite statesmen who run the current Iraqi government. These statesmen always follow the general guidelines were given by Ali Sistani, the Shia high cleric (grand Ayatullah), and so the holy shrines stand as a major factor.

Moreover, the problem of IDPs has also complicated the issue. Since the 1960s, successive Iraqi governments and Islamic extremist groups have displaced Kurdish people in the disputed areas. Since 2003, extremist Islamic groups and ex-Ba’athists have continued to displace Kurds and sometimes other communities in the areas. The process started with “Arabization policies designed to alter the demographic balance in Kirkuk and other disputed areas between July 1968 and April 2003,” (Bartu). IS attacks have increased the number of IDPs in the area dramatically, and now members of all the different communities, equally, have been displaced for fear of living under IS suppression.

Regionally, neighboring countries like Iran and Turkey have been involved in the disputed territories’ problems; particularly, they have tried to silence Kurdish demands over the areas. About the regional countries’ role in the dispute, Stefan Wolff, German political scientist and specialist in international security, has stated that “Local, national, regional and international factors and dynamics thus combine in a near-perfect storm of conflicting interests, mismatched capabilities and diverging agendas.” He shows how the countries’ interventions are just pushing back local people’s solutions.

Additionally, the issue of the disputed territories has become a part of the discussions about the overall Iraqi political system. As Raad AlKadiri, specialist in Iraqi politics, said, “The territorial disputes that have been part and parcel of the federalism debate have also come dangerously close to armed clashes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.” Putting the issue in the context of the whole Iraqi problems, he concluded that the dispute might lead to another nation-wide conflict.

Mohammed Hussein lives in Slemani where he writes for and He has also worked as a translator and translated three books into Kurdish. You can email him at:

 Work cited:

Bartu, Peter. “Wrestling with the integrity of a nation: the disputed internal boundaries in Iraq.” International Affairs 86: 6, 2010. The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Wolff, Stefan. “Governing (in) Kirkuk: resolving the status of a disputed territory in post-American Iraq.” International Affairs 86: 6, 2010. The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

“Sunni tribes turning on ISIS and Peshmerga.” Iraqoilreport. Sept. 11, 2014.

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