Disputed territories in Iraq: Security Dilemma and geopolitics

Diyari Salih | 13 Jul 2021

This paper seeks to show the geographic importance of the so-called “disputed territories” between Baghdad and Erbil and their role in shaping Iraq’s security landscape. The importance of these territories has recently increased, not only in the context of talking about ISIS ability to exploit circumstances and escalate attacks there, but also in the context of understanding the impact of the geopolitical shifts in these territories on the internal balance of power.

Disputed territories: constitutional status and geographic importance      

The term “disputed territories” in Iraq surfaced after 2003.[1] Article 140 of the 2005 constitution clearly states that “the executive authority shall undertake the necessary steps to complete the implementation of the requirements of all subparagraphs of Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law…it accomplishes completely (normalization and census and concludes with a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens), by a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007.”[2]

Article 58 of the 2004 Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period points out that the Iraqi Transitional Government, and especially the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other relevant bodies, shall act expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime’s practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk, by deporting and expelling individuals from their places of residence, forcing migration in and out of the region, settling individuals alien to the region, depriving the inhabitants of work, and correcting nationality. To remedy this injustice, the Iraqi Transitional Government shall take the following steps:

- With regard to residents who were deported, expelled, or who emigrated; it shall, in accordance with the statute of the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other measures within the law, within a reasonable period of time, restore the residents to their homes and property, or, where this is unfeasible, shall provide just compensation.

- With regard to persons deprived of employment or other means of support in order to force migration out of their regions and territories, it shall promote new employment opportunities in the regions and territories.

- With regard to nationality correction, it shall repeal all relevant decrees and shall permit affected persons the right to determine their own national identity and ethnic affiliation free from coercion and duress.

- The permanent resolution of disputed territories, including Kirkuk, shall be deferred until after these measures are completed, a fair and transparent census has been conducted and the permanent constitution has been ratified.[3] 

Since then, the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are in constant dispute over revenues from these territories. There has been no census or referendum in these territories for technical, political and geopolitical reasons. Until this moment, KRG insists that these are Kurdish territories and should entirely be under its authority. On the other hand, Baghdad rejects such claims and considers attempts by KRG to annex these territories by force as unconstitutional and warns against repercussions of such step on the internal situation.

Kurds raise doubts about the possibility of having a constitutional and peaceful chance to annex the disputed territories to the other four governorates in Kurdistan region (Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk and Halabja). They fear that the central government might deny them these territories.[4]        

Kurds claim that Kurdish cities and towns are located outside the current constitutional boundaries of Kurdistan region that include Kirkuk governorate and parts of the governorates of Nineveh, Salah Al din, Diyala, and Wasit.[5]

These territories are demographically diverse. A mixture of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens live there (look at the map). In contrast to the Kurdish narrative, which talks about victimization in this vast geographic area, particularly in Kirkuk governorate, there are narratives that express a counter- victimization adopted by other ethnicities, particularly Arabs and Turkmens, in addition to Christians and Yezidis.[6]

Therefore, this geography is an important source of concern as part of producing the Iraqi identity after 2003. Each side is trying to seize it to expand geographically at the expense of others. This has contributed, to a great extent, to the rise of identity struggle in these territories, which is important for the following reasons:

  • A strip of land that extends from the Iraqi-Syrian borders to the Iraqi-Iranian borders; it is 1,000 kilometers long with an area of 37,000 square kilometers.
  • The Tigris river and other important water streams pass through these territories, especially at the administrative boundaries of Dohuk governorate with Tel Afar and Sinjar districts. This means that the Kurds would have – if they annex these territories – a key water source passing through their lands. This might later turn into a political tool to be employed in any potential conflict between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad.
  • This geographic domain is a vital bridge for contact between Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq. Therefore, developments in these territories are a key indicator of the extent of Iraq’s cohesion in the future. The disintegration of this domain, however, is an accurate evidence of the possible geographic split of Iraq.
  • These territories contain vital resources such as oil and gas, especially in Kirkuk governorate. This intensifies disagreement between Baghdad and Erbil as a result of attempts to control this governorate. The Kurds hope to annex these territories to be an economic source of support for the state they are planning to establish in the future. Several leaders in Baghdad stress that Kirkuk should be a key part of Iraq’s geography to deny the Kurds control over it; thus, ensuring Iraq’s unity.
  • It is likely that this geographic territory would witness vital strategic projects such as the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline through Mosul; the Mosul-Ghazi Aintab railroad; and a supposed Iranian project to connect with Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline which Russia is trying to revive. Therefore, the party that controls this region would control, one way or the other, the economic benefits of these projects.               

A map showing disputed territories in Iraq

The security situation in the disputed territories

The disputed territories are suffering from an unstable security situation for several years due to the multitude of decision-making sources in the military and security fields. In 2014, ISIS exploited this situation and controlled vast swathes of this territory, which through its western side, was a point of geographic contact with other vast areas controlled by ISIS in Syria.

During operations to liberate areas under ISIS control, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were able to control key areas in Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salah Al din and Diyala. This has prompted many Kurdish parties to think that the Kurds have become able to impose the fait accompli policy in these territories and decide their geographic and political fate. Masoud Barzani, the then-president of Kurdistan region said that “Kurdish forces will never withdraw from areas that they have liberated from ISIS.”[7] In Sep. 2017, Barzani decided to hold a referendum to secede from Iraq. This secession, however, was not limited to governorates of Iraqi Kurdistan region but also included the disputed territories which Erbil calls “the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region.”[8] This step was taken particularly in Kirkuk governorate, which is described by Kurdish parties as the “Quds of Kurdistan”[9] to produce a new geographic reality related to the idea of establishing “Greater Kurdistan” (at least in Iraq).

Arabs and Turkmens in the disputed territories objected to this Kurdish approach. The government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was able to mobilize regional and international powers (Iran, Turkey and the U.S.) against the referendum and its outcomes. Former Commander of the Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, played an essential role in confronting Erbil’s ambitions. As part of an agreement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has more influence in Kirkuk, Soleimani helped the Iraqi army and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to enter the disputed territories and control key centers there.[10] In parallel, PUK forces withdrew peacefully from all areas in which they were deployed after 2014.

The success of this plan led to substantial changes in these territories; Kurdish Peshmerga forces retreated to areas it used to control before 2003 and Iraqi forces were redeployed in the region. However, there has been a key shift in the equation related to the disputed territories; PMF has become the decisive power in most of these territories.

A new security plan in the disputed territories

Despite the official announcement of ISIS eradication in Iraq in July 2017, this group is still capable, every now and then, of proving its danger by targeting Iraqi forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga in fluid areas of Nineveh, Salah Al din, Diyala and Kirkuk. At the same time, Kurdish leaders blame the Iraqi government for the increasing security vacuum in these areas which is exploited by ISIS. Erbil says that PMF categorically reject the idea of Peshmerga forces return to take part in providing security in these territories. There is a 60-kilometer security vacuum between the Iraqi forces and Peshmerga in northern areas and 40 kilometers in Diyala. These security vacuums have become safe havens for ISIS to launch attacks.[11]

In this regard, several leaders in Kurdistan region such as KRG Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs chief of staff Jabar Yawar, say that the group increased its activities, especially in Diyala, Hamrin, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu and Qarachogh.

 Daesh launched 456 terrorist attacks in 2014. In 2019, they launched nearly 300 attacks. Only four months into 2020, they have so far launched 100 attacks.[12] 

Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs also affirms that a new threat is affecting the regional security landscape represented by recent attacks on Erbil’s airport and the Turkish military base in Bashiqa by factions linked to PMF.[13] These factions play an influential role by launching attacks out of these territories against American interests, especially inside Kurdistan region to force these troops to leave all of Iraq. This embarrasses the Iraqi government in front of the international community as a result of these uncontrolled acts that threaten security in the disputed territories. Therefore, the Kurds affirm that Erbil and Baghdad are now facing common challenges and confronting them is only possible through cooperation and giving Kurdish forces the chance once again to deploy in the disputed territories to eliminate security vacuums and confront ISIS and other outlaw groups.

In the same context, the U.S. state department warned that there are several indications that ISIS threat in the disputed territories in Iraq is evident in how it will impact security in these territories in the future.[14] Therefore, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government took key steps in an attempt to undermine the scenario of other cities falling into the hands of ISIS once again. Baghdad took serious steps to open constructive dialogue with the Kurds, share security information and establish a joint military operations room that can help in maintaining security in the disputed territories.

Meanwhile, leaks confirmed that there is an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil to reinstate the joint military administration of these territories and allow the Kurdish peshmerga to return there, especially in Kirkuk and some parts of Diyala. The two sides have also agreed to establish coordination centers in these cities in addition to Mosul. Most of the details of this plan were drafted in July 2020 but it was not activated then due to strong opposition in Baghdad by pro-Iran factions, which are trying to prevent the return of Peshmerga to these territories.

The geopolitics of the disputed territories            

Competition over land to turn it into a living space is one of the key pillars of geopolitics. Most details of geopolitics apply to the high-level competition to control the disputed territories between Baghdad and Erbil. Some parties believe that these territories are vital to Iraq and whoever controls it would control a lot of resources and wealth and can play a role in deciding the future of Iraq.

Many observers believe that the lack of security and stability in the disputed territories is related, to a certain extent, to the competition between the U.S., Turkey and Iran. This competition has eventually led Iran’s allies (PMF) to consolidate their power in these territories; thus, undermining the government’s power and its security and military decision there.[15]

Kurds, however, stress that PMF have an agenda linked to the following issues which they are trying to achieve through this role:

  1. Undermine the return of Kurds to the disputed territories and limit their geopolitical influence;
  2. Use disputed territories as platforms to launch missiles and threats that undermine security inside Kurdistan region;
  3. Limit the potential role of Kurds in Iraqi politics because they are considered U.S. allies;
  4. Turn the disputed territories into a geographic belt line to impose a blockade on Kurdistan region and threaten diplomatic delegations there;
  5. Confront any attempt by the Iraqi government to normalize the situation in the disputed territories. For example, prevent the implementation of Sinjar agreement which was signed by Baghdad and Erbil in Oct. 2020;
  6. Undermine the fortunes of Kurdish factions in elections, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in the traditional strongholds which the party used to enjoy before 2017 in Kirkuk and Nineveh;
  7. Impose themselves as an actor that can not be ignored by Sunni factions; thus, forcing these factions to align with PMF on many issues related to elections and military and security decisions.

In the same context, Kurds and Shiite factions accuse each other of turning a blind eye to ISIS attacks. For instance, assistant commander of the 30th brigade in PMF, Abu al-hor al-Basri, accused Peshmerga forces of helping ISIS to launch attacks in some areas of Diyala.[16] There were also accusations in PMF media outlets that Erbil is conspiring with other parties to expel PMF from these territories. KDP media outlets in Erbil point out that PMF have not done anything to counter ISIS attacks against the Peshmerga forces near Kirkuk.[17] In light of the lack of trust and discourse of betrayal between PMF and Peshmerga, some observers fear an escalation of the confrontation scenario[18] between the two sides in these territories. This means that there are doubts about the credibility of the possible return of the Peshmerga to these territories according to al-Kadhimi’s plan.

Since 2020 and in multiple occasions, PMF have categorically rejected the return of the Peshmerga forces to the disputed territories. For example, one of PMF leaders (Ali al-Husseini) warned against the dangerous security situation in Kirkuk and Salah Al din governorates if the Kurds return to these areas. He stressed that “there is no need for the return of these forces. And if they return, this means things would go back to square one in terms of crises and problems.”[19] Several supporters of PMF in Kirkuk protested against any suggestion about the return of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to Kirkuk.[20] This means that Iraqi prime minister’s plan to restore the Peshmerga’s role in taking part of the disputed territories’ affairs faces several obstacles that prevent the implementation of this plan in a realistic way.

What is interesting in the geopolitical game in the disputed territories is the position of al-Sadr movement; it believes that the return of the Peshmerga forces to Kirkuk is linked to a decision by the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces.[21] This stand is in the context of a convergence in perspectives and approaches before elections between al-Sadr coalition and KDP. The two sides agree, to a great extent, with al-Kadhimi’s approaches to confront PMF’s influence in these territories. Therefore, it is likely that some Sunni factions - that have reservations towards PMF’s role and movements in these territories – will join this axis as part of the competition for votes. There is an emerging coalition between Fatah Alliance and its factions in PMF and PUK, which might also include some Sunni factions that could benefit from PMF’s control over these territories to achieve illegal electoral gains.

Sunni factions are sharply divided on what is happening in the disputed territories; some factions turn a blind eye to what is happening there in light of their ties with Fatah Alliance, which is the political and parliamentary umbrella of PMF. Other factions publicly call for a role and presence for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces or redeployment of PMF outside major cities and give people of these territories the chance to enlist in the Iraqi army and security forces to help in the security of these regions.

This disagreement surfaced during an attempt to appoint a new governor of Mosul close to PMF and backed by their ally Khamis al-Khanjar, Secretary-General of the Arab Project and Ahmed al-Jibouri, who was leading the parliamentary al-Mihwar bloc. This attempt faced opposition by other factions, notably the Speaker of the Parliament Mohammed al-Halboosi[22] who seems to favor arrangements that could result from the recent rapprochement between the Sadrist movement and KDP.

Future scenarios for the situation of the disputed territories

1. Kurdish control (a weak scenario in the short run)

This scenario is based, to a great extent, on the assumption of a Kurdish insistence to annex the disputed territories because it is a strategic doctrine in the political discourse of Kurdish factions, KDP in particular. KDP believes that what happened in these territories in Oct. 2017 can be described as betrayal by PUK and some kind of a conspiracy by some factions in Baghdad towards Erbil. Therefore, KDP media outlets keep repeating that Kirkuk, for instance, is an occupied city.

KDP also seeks to employ its good offices with Washington and Ankara to pressure al-Kadhimi’s government to return unconditionally to the disputed territories. The party also counts heavily on this possibility in the coming period to employ this in elections.

In essence, this scenario is rejected by Shiites based on the idea that what has been achieved in 2017 is a huge gain for Iraq and cannot be relinquished without conditions or going back to square one. This scenario is also rejected by the huge force on the ground, PMF, which categorically rejects the return of the Kurdish Peshmerga to these territories. PMF leadership publicly announces that they are likely to oppose any decision by the central government in Baghdad to allow the return of Kurdish forces there.

2. PMF control (a likely scenario in the short run)

This scenario is based on the idea of the continuation of the status quo. The Kurds will not be able in any way to eject PMF from areas that these forces have deployed in after 2017. This scenario is backed by the negative memory of the societal forces in the disputed territories, particularly in Kirkuk towards the Peshmerga presence from 2014 to 2017. PMF uses the pretext that there is some kind of public support for their troops to remain in control of the security situation in these territories and a rejection for any possible Kurdish return.

This scenario, however, faces a number of difficulties, notably that the society has recently started to express unease towards PMF policies. This will, in the future, increase clashes between locals and PMF. There is also pressure by international actors on Baghdad to find an acceptable solution for PMF presence in major cities at a time when these territories are used to launch missiles and drones against Kurdistan region and nearby U.S. bases such as Balad, Ain al-Asad and Harir.           

3. Government control (a likely scenario)

Control by government forces over these territories is the best scenario on which everyone is counting. The whole security issue will be in the hands of the government forces under the command of the commander-in-chief, especially the Counter-Terrorism Service (ICTS), which has done a great job in the operations to liberate Mosul and winning the hearts of the people in these territories.

Key input that supports this scenario is represented by a lack of true conviction for joint action between the Peshmerga and PMF. This increases the chance of a clash between the two sides. Therefore, the government must try to overcome this obstacle by giving the biggest role to the army and security forces to project the presence of the state and the rule of the law in these territories; thus, undermine a potential ISIS comeback.

There is an international support for this scenario. The Kurdish side also accepts it to a certain extent. PMF position is, however, the major obstacle in front of such scenario. In contrast, it seems that many societal forces in these territories from all walks of life believe that this is a more acceptable idea and a better guarantee of security in the future.


  • When the Iraqi constitution was drafted in 2005 based on a Shiite-Kurdish agreement, no one thought that article 140 which is related to these territories will become one of the key sources of turbulence in the relationship between the two sides in 2017. The Kurds insist on annexing these territories to Kurdistan region, while the government and the public reject this step. This position is employed by PMF as an excuse to obstruct the return of the Peshmerga to these territories even if it is under the pretext of enhancing security in these territories. Therefore, there has been recent talk about potential future clashes between the two sides.
  • These territories, with a vast area of about 37,000 square kilometers, are characterized by its diverse demography; it includes a mixture of key ethnicities and religions that lived in Iraq for a long time. There are also contradictory narratives about the ownership of these territories. Talk on this issue has increased after 2003 due to the fragmentation of the Iraqi identity. This was not in isolation of the geographic importance of these territories and its natural resources, especially oil, water and arable land. Lack of a unified security administration in these territories will contribute in a potential identity-societal clash there.
  • From a geopolitical perspective, these territories are a bridge to connect northern and southern parts of Iraq. Therefore, preserving their territorial integrity is necessary to preserve Iraq’s cohesion and unity. That said, transforming these territories into a fluid security region will cast shadows on the whole Iraqi landscape.
  • The security situation in the disputed territories went through key shifts from 2014 to 2017. The authority of Kurdistan region has expanded to these territories by exploiting the war against ISIS to fill the vacuum left by the Iraqi army. The Kurds made a grave strategic mistake by holding a referendum to secede from Iraq. This has paved the way for the rise of a new variable on the ground in the disputed territories; PMF started to take part in enforcing the law. This, in turn, has contributed to a large extent to the retreat of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces into Kurdish territories which were under their control until 2003. Since then, there is no real coordination between the two sides in the disputed territories. On the other hand, there is a huge security vacuum exploited by ISIS to launch its terrorist operations. This situation raises alarm in these territories which might see severe security crises that remind us of what has happened in 2014.
  • Al-Kadhimi’s government seeks to produce a new security equation in the disputed territories after these areas have turned into platforms to threaten security in Kurdistan region. The latter has accused PMF of targeting Erbil airport and American interests on its territories. However, the lack of trust between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and PMF and the latter’s rejection of Peshmerga’s return to the disputed territories hamper al-Kadhimi’s efforts to enforce his new security plan. Success by Iraq’s premier to break the power of these detriments will be a key challenge for him to stay in power in the few coming months.                        


[1] Baraa al-Shammari, “What we know about disputed territories in Iraq”, The New Arab, Oct. 18, 2017. https://2u.pw/bCCSV  

[2] Constitution of the Republic of Iraq, Baghdad, Iraqi House of Representatives, 2011, p. 70.

[3] 2004 Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period, p. 186

[4] Arif Qurbani, “Point of disagreement, geography and referendum,” Rudaw website, Oct. 5, 2019. https://2u.pw/6JAly

[5] D. saleh, "closing the security vacuum in northern Iraq," Geopolitical Monitor, 24 May 2021. Available: https://2u.pw/4FJNw

[6] Khalil Fadl Othman, Kirkuk, The Dialectics of Numbers and Narratives, Doha: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, 2018, p. 126-153.

[7] “Northern Iraq Controls 30,000 square kilometers since the rise of ISIS”, Anadolu Agency, March 19, 2016. https://2u.pw/Kbn9e 

[8] “Kurdistan region referendum: more than 92% support cession from Iraq”, BBC, Sep. 27, 2017. https://2u.pw/HG53l   

[9] “Talabani: Kirkuk is the Quds of Kurdistan”, Al-Jazeera, Mar. 8, 2011. https://2u.pw/vQWY2

[10] “Al-Abadi: The federal government must restore control over disputed territories”, Kuwait News Agency, Sep. 27, 2017. https://2u.pw/EsHR0

[11] "Iraqi defence ministry unwilling to co-operate against ISIS," Rudaw, 9 April 2020. Available: https://2u.pw/Ww1DN

[12]  Ibid

[13]  "Kurdistan region faces new and serious threat," Rudaw, 15 April 2021. Available: https://2u.pw/XgDP8

[14] “U.S. state department: ISIS activity is increasing in disputed territories in Iraq”, Rudaw, June 25, 2020. https://2u.pw/8fIdR

[15] "Iran backed popular mobilization forces are destabilising Iraq the supported regions," Al Jazeera, 8 may 2021. Available: https://2u.pw/9ILk7

[16] “A leader in PMF: We have no doubts that the Peshmerga support terrorist attacks in areas of Diyala”, al-Maalomah, Apr. 28, 2021.

[17] “Al-Hamondi to Rudaw: PMF were present during the attack against Peshmerga and did not move”, Rudaw, May 6, 2021. https://2u.pw/rP3fT

[18] “An escalation of skirmishes…Will there be a clash between the Peshmerga and PMF in Iraq”, al-Estiklal newspaper, Apr. 20, 2021. https://www.alestiklal.net/ar/view/8170/dep-news-1618762537

[19] “A leader in PMF: Peshmerga’s return to Kirkuk and Salah Al din means a return to square one”, Baghdad Today, Feb. 15, 2020. https://2u.pw/vxqDK

[20] “Kirkuk…protests rejecting the return of Kurdistan Democratic Party”, Anadolu Agency, Mar. 15, 2021. https://2u.pw/KzPT9

[21] “Al-Sadr coalition: There is no objection to the return of Peshmerga to Kirkuk”, Basnews, May 22, 2021. https://2u.pw/36oYP

[22] “The selection of a new governor of Mosul close to PMF raises Sunni opposition and increases their disagreements,” al-Monitor, May 22, 2019. https://www.al-monitor.com/ar/contents/articles/originals/2019/05/nineveh-provincial-iraq-pmu-sunni-iran.html


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