While ISIS is pushed to the brink of extinction, the Shia militias and Kurdish fighters who drove the purported caliphate out of Iraq are now fighting each other over control of key areas in northern Iraq and a decorated U.S. general says the ones who benefit are the mullahs in Iran.
NBC News reports Monday that Shia militias are launching a “major, multi-pronged attack” aimed at taking away the critically important city of Kirkuk from Kurdish control. The Kurdish peshmerga successfully defended Kirkuk from ISIS three years ago as the Islamists were sweeping through northern and western Iraq and prompting the official Iraqi forces to throw down their weapons and flee from the invaders.
Further complicating matters is the non-binding Kurdish referendum on independence last month. The vote passed easily but was seen by the Iraqi government and other anti-Kurdish elements as inflammatory.
When ISIS was routed out of Mosul earlier this year, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. General Tom McInerney was sobered by the key role of Shia militias loyal to Iran in that victory. He says the same groups are now turning on the Kurds.
“The people attacking them are primarily Shi’ite organizations that the Iranians set up for the Iraqi military. So I think we’ve got to get our hands on it very quickly and not let it get out of control,” said McInerney.
When asked if any U.S. sympathy for the Kurdish position would drive the Iraqi government even closer to their Shia brethren in Iran, McInerney says that ship has already sailed.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. The Iraqi government is already in the hands of Iran. Whether they can go further or not is another question
“We’re having out own challenge with the Iranian government on the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. I think you can see this is only going to get worse because of the expansive nature of Iran,” said McInerney.
While acknowledging this is a complicated and delicate diplomatic dance for the U.S., McInerney says the sacrifices of the Kurds over the years need to be recognized.
“This is very complex. My gut feel is clearly that we should be supporting the Kurds. They resurrected Kirkuk when ISIS tries to take it over an d the Iraqi government fled. So they should be given credit for that.
“I’m not sure where our government’s going to go, but I do believe that we ought to make it so that since the Kurds saved Kirkuk from ISIS that they ought to be given credit for that,” said McInerney.
McInerney is quite sympathetic towards the creation of an independent Kurdish nation, known as Kurdistan, but also points out that creating that state is contrary to the interests of several nations in the region, since the Kurdish population centers would lead to a nation carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
While admitting the issue is so thorny that he does not have any specific proposals to solve the sectarian schism that’s now turning deadly, he says decisive U.S. leadership could well play a key role in preventing the escalation of these renewed tensions.
“It’s going to take State Department and Defense working closely together with all parties to create a solution that is satisfactory. But it will take U.S. leadership, strong leadership to do that.
“I’m delighted that we’ve got President Trump who’d be willing to make some of the hard decisions on what transpires over there right now. No clear, easy answer,” said McInerney.
Ultimately, McInerney believes any long term stability will require dealing with the Iranian regime. McInerney says Iran will likely work behind the scenes to kill any agreement that the U.S. finds palatable. He says as long as the mullahs are pulling the strings there and in their own nation, peace will be elusive.
“Iran is on a path that we need a regime change with the mullahs. We ought to admit it and there are so many allies over there that will help us change that regime and create a different calculus over there. We need to be looking at that very seriously,” said McInerney.