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Turkey and Iran Conflicting Agendas in Iraq: Who Will Get What

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Both Iran and Turkey are racing to increase their gains in Iraq while the Arab Sunni states are trying to strengthen their ties to Iraqi Sunni tribes. In the case of Tehran, it is busy now trying to establish a larger presence in Kurdistan. For its part, Turkey’s role in Iraq has taken a turn recently as shown by the inter-fighting between the Kurds in the North, and the surfacing of a new Sunni organization in Mosul, trained and equipped by Ankara.

In Kurdistan, fighting erupted in the early morning of May 24th between the Peshmerga forces of Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Iranian-Kurdish borders. The KDPI, close to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) was trying to establish a base in the area that the PKK considers its territory. There are regular channels of contact between the PKK and Tehran. But the KRG is on a long honeymoon with the Turks.

KRG President Masoud Barzani interfered quickly to contain the clashes. Yet, the threatening sign shown in this fight is that it had a regional dimension. Regional interests, as a long term factor, proved to transcend any local issues or reconciliation effort done on the local basis. One week later, the clashes between the two groups, particularly around the contested area of Kelashin, was still going on.

The inter-Kurdish fight cannot be explained solely on basis of conflicting regional interests. But it is always the case that local disputes almost immediately attract more regional intervention. The success of the Kurdish region will be measured in how prudently it will navigate Kurdistan in the current storm and how it will repel ISIL’s attacks.

The apparent escalation between the two Kurdish groupsis an ominous sign. It will only help ISIL. But obviously, what is in the minds of the strategists in Tehran and Ankara is dominated by one question: who will get what in Iraq?

In the case of the Turkish sponsored group surfacing now around Mosul it carries the name “Al Hashd Al Wateny” – National Mobilization Force (NMF) parallel to the Southern pro-Iranian Shia forces called “AL Hashd Al Sha’aby” – Popular Mobilization Force (PMF).

The first sign of the existence of the NMF came out last March when the governor of Nineveh Athil Al Nujaifi indicated that Turkish officials promised to train and equip a Sunni force to fight ISIL in Mosul. On April 24th, the Turkish media reported that Turkish officers are already training an unspecified number of Iraqis to fight ISIL.  And on May 26th, a spokesman for NMF called Mahmoud Sourji claimed that his organization was already active inside Mosul. “We have finished successfully five rounds of training by Turkish officers and we are currently expecting additional supply of arms and equipment. Our Turkish brothers are expanding the training camps and increasing their assistance,” he said.

These developments on the ground were met with surprise and skepticism. Turkey has always kept an open channel with ISIL. It was surprising that the Turks were training fighters who confront the very organization they allowed to expand in the first place.

But there are signs that Turkey is revising its Syria-Iraq strategy. In this regard, it is noticeable that the Turkish-Saudi-US consultations are increasing. Yet, these consultations will have little bearing on the ultimate goals of both Ankara and Riyadh. The reason is obvious to all—there is no American strategy that is sustained by the practical ability to shape things on the ground. In any equation of that kind, the absence of one party leads to an expansion of the role of the other parties. Vacuum invites those who can fill it. And they fill it according to their views and interests so long as the reward is mouthwatering (like the North of Iraq for one example).

In regard of Iran’s overall plan for Iraq, reality ultimately limits the hopes and ambitions. At the end of the day, it will be impossible for the Iranians to control central Iraq or Kurdistan. Such an ambitious objective defies the demographic logic and the aspirations of both Kurds and Sunnis. Furthermore, it is not served neither by the pro-Iran forces in Baghdad nor by Tehran’s IRGC policies.

For example, the Iraqi Shia militias are still, stubbornly and stupidly, insisting on achieving the unachievable equation of all or nothing. In other words, the whole tragedy of Iraq is summarized in Baghdad’s rejection of granting the Kurds and the Sunnis a semi-independent status in a federal government of a unified Iraq. Instead, they do not want to come to terms with the reality. It is no longer possible to subjugate the two regions to an all-powerful central government led by pro-Iranian Shia forces or by anybody else for that matter.

Just few days ago, on the 26th of May, a meeting between leaders of all political blocks in the Iraqi Parliament and the Speaker Selim Al Jabouri witnessed a unanimous rejection by the Shia organizations to giving local governments any power over the proposed National Guard. Instead, they insisted that any deployment of units from the Guard be under the sole command of the leaders of the armed forces in Baghdad. For the Sunnis it is a none-starter because they see that if things go according to the Shia block’s wishes, the National Guard will be a cosmetic extension of the armed forces.

Before that, the Shia militias, claiming now to be part of the Iraqi army, named its Anbar campaign “Lubaik Ya Hussein,” a bluntly sectarian term. The term means that Shias are coming. Hussein, the son of Ali (The cousin of Prophet Mohamed) was killed in 860 AD in the battle of Karbala by the ancestors of the Sunnis. He is a religious icon for the Shia. Iraq’s Ministry of Defense later changed the code name to “Lubaik Ya Iraq”, replacing Hussein with Iraq.  This naivety shows the level the Shia groups understand the crisis in their country. It is as if changing the code name will change the nature of the force or even will convince anybody that something has really changed.

The contested regions in the breaking up of Iraq are not only the Center and the North. It is worthwhile to closely watch the oil rich Basra which is now harboring a strong ambition to become a kind of city-state on its own. In this case, it is not only regional parties who are explicitly or implicitly in the ring.

Iraq is being partitioned in a painful historical process.