It’s Too Early to Pop Champagne in Baghdad: The Micro-Politics of Territorial Control in Iraq


“What government?” scoffed Abu Ali, a local Turkmen force commander affiliated with the League of the Righteous, a powerful Iranian-backed Shi’a militia, when we asked whether he took orders from Iraqi forces or the central government. He lumped all Sunni Arabs in with the extremists who had abused his Shi’a sub-community in Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, and disparaged the Kurds as “backstabbers” and “cheats” who had done too little to stop the extremists and then manipulated the fight against ISIL to seize control. He saw few solutions other than to purge this historically multi-ethnic community of all except Shi’a Turkmen, and while he might be restrained by the head of the League of the Righteous or other senior commanders of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), there was nothing the Iraqi government could do to stop him.

These are the types of problems Baghdad assumed when Iraqi forces and their allies flipped Kirkuk, its nearby oil fields, and other parts of the Disputed Territories from Kurdish to Iraqi control last week. Coming on the heels of the retaking of Mosul, Iraqi forces’ gains this past week may seem like an unequivocal positive for the state’s efforts to reassert territorial control and state authority. But our recent research mapping sub-state forces in Iraq suggests that many of the territories the government reassumed control of are diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-sectarian communities pump-primed for violence – and Baghdad has little leverage to stop it.

The fragmentation of local security and political dynamics in the last three years will challenge Baghdad’s ability to stabilize and hold these areas. However, by emulating Kurdish and PMF strategies of local control (leaving aside the more ethnically charged and sectarian methods), as well as re-asserting the primacy of Iraqi forces by limiting PMF presence in the Disputed Territories and gradually demobilizing local community forces, Baghdad stands a chance of winning the local peace.

Security Fragmentation, and the Quest for Local Control

Triggered by the outcome of the recent referendum in which 92% of those voting elected for Kurdish independence from Iraq, Iraqi forces retook control of Kirkuk last Monday. In the subsequent days, Peshmerga, or Kurdish, forces stood aside as Iraqi and allied forces reassumed control of two key oil fields in Kirkuk governorate; key northern and western areas of Ninewa governorate, including Sinjar and areas around the Mosul Dam; Tuz Khurmatu in Salah ad-Din governorate; and parts of Diyala governorate extending to Khanaqin on the Iranian border. These areas had long been part of the Disputed Territories – the areas of Iraq claimed by both the Baghdad-centered Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government – but had been under predominantly Iraqi control prior to 2014. However, as Iraqi forces fled in the face of the ISIL threat, Kurdish forces moved in to defend key areas of Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, and then assumed control of areas north and west of Mosul, like Sinjar, Rabi’a, and Zummar, when ISIL was pushed out. The result was an estimated 40% more territory under predominantly Kurdish control since 2014, at least until this month. In the span of a few days, Iraqi forces undid all of that, neutering the KRG’s three-year (arguably 14-year) project of extending control and influence in the Disputed Territories.

The red sections of this map highlight the areas within the authors’ study. (Credit: Global Public Policy Institute)

But the territories Baghdad retook are not the same as they were in 2014. First, the security dynamics are more fragmented, with more local forces to contend with, each with competing and fluid allegiances to larger national and regional political forces. When state control of northern Iraq lapsed, particularly with the fall of Mosul, it snapped the backbone of the local security and governance framework. The Iraqi government and its allies sought to fill the gap and to confront the threat posed by ISIL with whatever fighters they could muster, and non-state and substate forces proliferated. Baghdad mobilized and expanded pre-existing militia groups into the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), which would swell to 120,000 forces by 2015. The PMF itself, as well as Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the United States, Turkey, and other actors, also mobilized and armed a range of smaller local forces, from Sunni tribal forces to local and minority defense forces from communities across the Disputed Territories.

What resulted was a plethora of sub-state armed groups, some close to Iraqi state forces but others more closely aligned with various stakeholders or simply pursuing their own agendas. While the different groups were united against ISIL, now that ISIL is gone, much deeper political and historical divisions are resurfacing. As International Crisis Group’s Joost Hilterman framed it in July:

The deeper conflicts here—between Arabs and Kurds, between Shia and Sunni, between neighboring powers such as Iran and Turkey, and among the Kurds themselves—will only escalate as the victors, fortified by weapons supplies and military training provided by foreign governments, engage in a mad scramble for the spoils.

This divided and fractured local security landscape will pose a number of challenges for the Iraqi government as it tries to stabilize and control the Disputed Territories. The presence of so many armed actors, many of relatively new vintage with loose command and control, may make it harder to contain violence, particularly when the mechanisms supporting regular rule of law are still recovering. In addition, many of the local forces mobilized in the areas that Baghdad reassumed control of this week are not necessarily on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s side. A recurring pattern we observed in our research was that as ISIL was pushed out, PMF or Kurdish forces stepped in and kept control by standing up or coopting local forces. Larger, pro-Iranian Shi’a PMF forces, like the Badr Organization and the League of the Righteous, recruited or stood up local auxiliary forces in parts of Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din governorates. With no significant Shi’a Arab population in the Disputed Territories, they drew predominantly from the local Shi’a Turkmen communities, but also supported Christian and Shabak militias in the Ninewa Plains (and Sunni Arab tribal militias in Sunni majority areas like Tikrit, Daur, and al-Alam). Most of these minority forces have operated with little direct oversight by the central government, holding the line autonomously against ISIL to the south and Kurdish forces to the north.

KRG forces (those affiliated with each of the two main political parties within the KRG, the KDP and PUK) also cultivated local allies in areas they sought to control across the Disputed Territories. For example, after Kurdish forces assumed control of the Syrian border area north of Mosul, near Rabi’a and Zummar, KDP-led brigades established a 2,000-strong Arab Brigade under the Peshmerga. In the Ninewa Plains, KDP forces have backed three different Christian militias, who have been holding territory together with Kurdish forces, at least until last week’s reversals. Sinjar has been a stew of competing proxy forces since 2014, with different local Yezidi factions loyal to either the KDP or PUK, Baghdad, and even PKK-supported factions. Although Kurdish forces only formed a very small number of minority brigades in Kirkuk, the PUK leadership further ingratiated itself with the Kirkuk police, effectively a local Kurdish force. Throughout the Disputed Territories, Kurdish leaders also relied on foreign Kurdish fighters. Syrian Kurdish fighters of the Rojava Peshmerga supported KDP-led operations northwest of Mosul, and Iranian Kurdish fighters held the line against ISIL in Dibis, northwest of Kirkuk.

These PMF- or KRG-supported local forces are for the most part still present across the recently retaken areas, and could influence the situation toward more stability or more violence. While some of these local forces may switch allegiances and support re-established Iraqi control, especially in areas with closer historical ties to Baghdad like Rabi’a, in other areas the Kurdish forces left behind are likely to be a force of local resistance. Local PMF forces are not necessarily going to be any easier to control. As the example of the local Tuz Khurmatu commander illustrated, local PMF forces tend to look to their parent Shi’a PMF groups or senior PMF commanders for instructions. And while the PMF are technically a state force, Abadi has struggled to control the stronger, Iranian-backed PMF factions.

Exclusion, Marginalization, and Tit-for-Tat Violence

The second major challenge Iraqi forces will face is heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions in these territories. Many of the local forces who were mobilized had an axe to grind against other factions in the community. PMF and Kurdish territorial and population control strategies have fanned these flames and sowed division in other ways. In the last three years, as Kurdish and PMF forces have seized control of multi-ethnic areas, they, or their local allies, have engaged in numerous rights violations against competing groups, including property destruction – to the level of destroying entire villages – as well as kidnapping, assassination, assault, and large-scale blocked return. Human Rights Watch uncovered evidence that Kurdish Security Forces were responsible for partial or complete destruction of 60 Sunni Arab villages. We saw similar trends in Zummar, and to a lesser extent in Rabi’a, with Arab towns and villages razed and many Sunni Arab residents deterred from returning. Kurdish and PMF forces, or their local allies, have also expelled residents of opposing ethnicities or sects, particularly Sunni Arabs, or prevented those from other communities from returning. For example, local Shia Turkmen PMF allies in Tuz Khurmatu and in parts of Kirkuk have been accused of gross human rights violations and blocked all Arabs and Sunni Turkmens from returning to areas under their control.

While these acts are often defended as necessary for security, or blamed on individual acts of revenge, it is hard to ignore the political ramifications. In a place like the Disputed Territories, where the demographic makeup of an area strongly influences claims about whether it is rightfully Kurdish or Iraqi, and may shift any future referenda, the forcible expulsion, blocked return, and intimidation of opposing groups carries a strong whiff of demographic gerrymandering. Such acts bring both immediate and long-term risks and consequences, which will be tough to undo. In the long term, the property damage, expulsion of some communities, and blocked or deterred return have changed the demographics in these areas, which could significantly shape their long-term cohesion and stability – the same patterns of forced demographic change, marginalization, and exclusion have in the past contributed to a boom-and-bust cycle of extremist movements and civil conflict. In the immediate term, they increase the likelihood of local conflict. In Kirkuk, we asked 40 key stakeholders, from diverse ethnic and sectarian backgrounds, to estimate the risk and sources of future violence. All 40 predicted a rise in inter-ethnic conflict based on the conduct of the Peshmerga, PMF, and their local affiliates in the last three years. Similarly, since it fell into split PMF and Peshmerga control in 2014, Tuz Khurmatu has been a cauldron of ethnic violence, persecution of opposing sides, and escalating violence that has threatened to spill over into larger national or regional conflict.

What Baghdad Must Do Next

The immediate imperative for Abadi is to get control of the local security situation. In the short term, the relative decline in Kurdish forces’ power in these areas will likely encourage anti-Kurdish violence. There have already been signs of volatility — while Iraqi forces ran their victory lap, violence erupted in Tuz Khurmatu where about 150 houses, business and political offices were torched, inflaming fears of a new Turkmen-Kurdish standoff.  Meanwhile, KRG President Masoud Barzani is likely act to as a spoiler in the coming period, and to look for a way to reassert control or at least frustrate Baghdad’s. Notwithstanding critiques of Kurdish forces, they generally provided effective security in areas under their control (although Kirkuk was a challenge). If Baghdad-led forces cannot do the same, it will provide a marked contrast before Iraq’s elections next year. In addition, if Iraqi forces are not able to contain the risk of tit-for-tat violence, it could set off cycles of violence and political turmoil with long-term ramifications.

Our research does not offer the magic bullet for stabilizing Iraq, but it does offer some evidence of better strategies for doing so. First, a key issue is not what Abadi does to address these sources of instability, but whom he deploys to do it. Since 2014, with Iraqi forces broken and stretched, Abadi and his coalition partners have been plugging the gaps with whatever forces were available, particularly when it came to holding territory (as the more professional and loyal Iraqi forces were reserved for winning back territory). While perhaps understandable, this approach enabled the proliferation of substate forces and allowed the most sizeable ones – the PMF and Peshmerga – to effectively substitute for the state in so many areas. Thus, the key challenge now is not just to stabilize these areas but to do it in a way that reasserts the supremacy of Iraqi forces.

To do both, the forces Abadi deploys should be the more neutral and better-performing Iraqi security forces, or in some areas the local police. In many of these areas, the most natural actor to turn to would be the Shi’a PMF and their local allies because they are already there in control or in close proximity. But relying on these forces would likely trigger new rounds of violence and resentment among the Kurdish-leaning population, creating openings for Barzani to reassert control or incite political turmoil. In some areas, it may be possible to have Iraqi troops supported by more moderate units of the PMF that closely follow the prime minister’s orders, as has happened in Tuz Khurmatu where the Najaf-based Imam Ali Combat Division played a mediating role when conflict broke out. Ultimately, however, any effort to build a strong, state-led rule of law framework is undermined by the very existence of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which legitimizes armed actors whose agendas compete with the state’s. While it may not be possible to eliminate the PMF immediately, Baghdad could at least reduce tensions by restricting the forces from operating in the Disputed Territories. Limiting where the PMF operate is not impossible, as illustrated by successful restrictions on PMF participation in clearing operations from Ramadi to Mosul to Tal Afar.

Second, reversing the trends of the last three years depends on deliberate efforts to reign in and control the local forces that have emerged. Doing so will likely require the same careful cultivation of local actors, on a district-by-district level, that the PMF and Peshmerga have demonstrated. The short-term strategy might be to co-opt some of these local forces. The lowest-hanging fruit are those whose loyalty was rented but not bought, like the Arab brigade of the Peshmerga. They might be converted to local auxiliaries of the federal or local police, the way that Sunni Arab tribal forces are currently deployed in much of Ninewa. However, in the longer term, Iraqi forces must begin designing an off-ramp, either demobilizing these forces completely or fully integrating members of local forces into police or security forces. Nearly all local actors we spoke to, in all research sites, from tribal leaders to internally displaced persons to even force commanders, said they preferred that security be under control of a unified Iraqi state force. Iraqi forces might begin piloting such a model of gradual absorption, demobilization and reintegration in these most sensitive areas, where transitioning from popular mobilization to inclusive state control is most important.

Finally, while Iraqi forces may want to emulate PMF and Peshmerga strategies of coopting and cultivating local partners, they must leave aside the tactics of demographic engineering. It may be tempting to ratify those demographic changes that created a pro-Baghdad constituency, and reverse those that support a Kurdish-leaning voting pool, but this would be the worst of all strategies. Instead, Abadi must immediately reassure the Kurdish population in order to reverse the current exodus of Kurdish-leaning populations. He must then take steps to unwind the demographic shifts that were forced or encouraged by those in control. Anyone with a legitimate residency claim, current or historic, should be allowed to return and resettle regardless of ethnic or sectarian background.

Winning local security, or what we call the micro-politics of control, is important because the geopolitical dynamics are too fragmented for top-down strategies alone to succeed in quenching lower-level violence. Still, local strategies need to be pursued alongside broader political negotiations. Without a settlement, the larger political contest between Baghdad and the KRG will continue to create incentives for a fragmented security landscape, where reduced command and control and a lack of accountability empowers more extreme groups, which in turn leads to spiraling violence at the micro level. As one Christian politician we interviewed put it, “Whichever one wins out, we are a small number of fighters, and we can be pushed aside.” But he worried that if the larger KRG-Baghdad dispute had no decisive outcome, local actors would continue to be pulled between the two sides: “If there will be a decision on this [situation], then I’m optimistic, but if they just let it go as it is, then it will get worse.”


Erica Gaston and Andras Derzsi-Horvath have been leading research on local, substate, and regional forces in Iraq for the Global Public Policy institute (GPPi) in Berlin, Germany. The project was funded by the Netherlands Research Organisation, and carried out in conjunction with the Institute for Regional Studies at the American University in Sulaimani, and the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Afghanistan. Gaston is a human rights lawyer and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Derzsi-Horvath is a project manager at GPPi.

Image: U.S. Army/Christopher Brecht