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Iraq—the end of the beginning

Iraq's army has retaken Kurdish-controlled areas around Kirkuk in the north, while neighbouring states are considering their long-term response to the independence referendum

After Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in the referendum of 25 September, the region had found itself in unknown territory, the air crackling with warnings and threats. The hope, against hope, was that negotiations would enable the Baghdad authorities and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to settle their differences peacefully. It wasn't to be. In mid-October, Iraqi army units and Shia militiamen advanced towards the disputed oil city of Kirkuk, taking back control of the state North Oil Company headquarters en route. Clashes with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were reported. Within a few days, Kirkuk and the surrounding area, under Kurdish control since 2014, were back in the hands of the Iraqi army.

The result of the non-binding poll was never in doubt. In the end, 93% of Iraqi Kurds who voted opted for the principle of setting up their own state and breaking all existing links with Baghdad. The Middle East held its breath. Turkey and Iran, countries with sizeable Kurdish populations that might be inspired by any Iraqi Kurdish independence success, moved their forces to the borders of the territory governed by the KRG. Iran closed its border with the Kurdish territory and Turkey threatened to cut the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline, the conduit through which the KRG's crude oil—some 0.5m-0.6m barrels a day of it (mostly from Kirkuk)—reaches the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast for export. Without revenue from this trade, the KRG would be sunk.

The federal government in Baghdad reacted swiftly to the referendum, demanding that the two international airports under KRG control, Erbil and Sulaimaniya, be handed to the federal authorities, and imposed an international flight ban on the region when its demand was rejected. The Iraqi parliament called for the Iraqi army to be deployed in Kirkuk, which has been in Kurdish Peshmerga hands since 2014.

For a time, the threats of military action and the immediate prospect of crippling sanctions on the KRG appeared to ease. But that didn't mean business as usual. It was simply that the leaders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran had to decided to step back for a moment and consider their next step. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to ease tension by saying "we don't want confrontation, we don't want clashes, but federal authority must prevail. Separation is unacceptable." All of which was another way of saying that force, in the end, would be inevitable.

A further influence on the unfolding crisis was Iraqi domestic politics. Elections are coming up next year, and Abadi knew that if he appeared too weak, unwilling to order the army to take Kirkuk, then he would risk losing the support of the majority Shia population, who're fiercely opposed to the break-up of the Iraqi state and have the military power to give teeth to that opposition. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has Iran's support and is looking for a chance to knock Abadi off the stage and return to power himself, dismissed dialogue with the KRG as "worthless, for the referendum and its results are in breach of the constitution".

As for Turkey, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan was affronted by the KRG's decision to ignore his direct appeal for the referendum to be scrapped. Erdogan and Barzani were close friends. Today, Erdogan feels personally betrayed. "Barzani," he said after the referendum, "has strained relations to the point of cut-off. When they [Iraqi Kurdish authorities] were unable to pay the salaries of the civil servants we helped them… We gave them a $2bn loan. But they didn't appreciate it."

Turkey has strong energy and economic links with the KRG, which it doesn't want to break. It benefits from oil imports from northern Iraq and has signed a final deal for natural gas imports. But, as Professor Gün Kut, of the Bosphorous University in Istanbul told Petroleum Economist recently, "Turkey refuses the idea of a non-Arab state being established in the Arab world. It would be yet another source of instability".

Iraq, Turkey and Iran want to avoid becoming involved in a military confrontation themselves, at least for the time being. They hope that the Iraqi authorities have taken the necessary steps to prevent the break-up of the country. But all three are watching and waiting, prepared to do whatever is necessary to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. A red line has been reached: the Kurds say they have a popular mandate for independence; Baghdad and its allies say their action is illegal and unacceptable. To paraphrase Winston Churchill's famous quote, this isn't the end, or the beginning of the end of the KRG crisis. But it is the end of the beginning.

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