Two separate battles between federal security forces and Peshmerga soldiers near Kirkuk have raised the prospect that intensifying political friction between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could combust into a civil war.
The rival military forces - nominally allied in the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group - engaged in two, hour-long firefights just south of the Bai Hassan oil field, on Oct. 7 and 8, according to multiple Peshmerga officers, KRG officials, and eyewitnesses.
While the battles ended relatively quickly and resulted in only two known injuries, they highlight how tensions and mistrust are building among Iraq's Balkanized military forces in the contentious aftermath of the KRG's Sept. 25 independence referendum.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) posted on Twitter Wednesday that it believes federal troops are preparing a "major attack" on Kurdish positions southwest of Kirkuk and north of Mosul.
Also on Wednesday, the head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa, sent a formal communiqué to diplomatic representatives in Erbil requesting help in deterring an alleged potential Baghdad attack targeting Kurdish positions near Kirkuk and the Mosul Dam.
"We kindly ask your esteemed Governments urgent interference in order to stop such dangerous movements by Iraqi Government which may led [sic] to a bloody war," Mustafa wrote in the communiqué, which was seen by Iraq Oil Report.
Iraq Oil Report attempted to contact several spokespersons for various federal Iraqi authorities – including the prime minister's office, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, and the al-Hashid al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization) – but they could not be reached in time for publication.
The military flare-ups come on the heels of a successful offensive to liberate Hawija, southwest of Kirkuk, from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) militant group. In several areas recently seized from IS, paramilitary forces operating under the federal government's al-Hashid al-Shabi program have now established bases across from Peshmerga front lines.
The first battle between Hashid and Peshmerga forces began on the night of Oct. 7 in Kharabaroot, about 30 kilometers west of Kirkuk and just south of the Bai Hassan oil field, which the KRG seized from the federal government in 2014. The field is currently producing about 195,000 barrels per day (bpd), according to an industry official, which amounts to just under one-third of KRG production.
Many key details of the battle remain unclear. Two Peshmerga soldiers said the Peshmerga fired the first shots, while Soran Kamaran, a local Kurdish reporter who was on the scene, said the Hashid forces started it.
"They even used tank-mounted machine guns against the Peshmerga," Kamaran said.
The battle lasted about one hour, and two Peshmerga soldiers were wounded, according to Maj. Dilshad Mala, who serves in the area with the Peshmerga's Defense and Emergency Brigade. The incident was also confirmed by a senior KRG official.
The second battle erupted the following morning in Allewa, a village near the main road connecting Hawija and Kirkuk. It is not clear what prompted the fighting; neither side appeared to be trying to advance beyond its own fortifications.
"There was no attacking," said Mala. "Everyone was sitting in their trenches shooting toward each other, but it was really a meaningless exchange of fire. Nobody knew why he was shooting."
The Oct. 8 firefight lasted about 45 minutes, Mala said. Two other Peshmerga soldiers in the area and a senior KRG official confirmed that incident as well.
Some other military officials, who are not stationed in the area, have denied the battles took place.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, a spokesperson for the joint military command fighting against IS, said there had been no confrontations between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga forces. Jabbar Yawar, the Secretary General of the Peshmerga Ministry, said that "no shooting incidents whatsoever have occurred."
Regardless, the current atmosphere of hard-line escalation raises the risk that conflict could break out in the future.
The Iraqi Parliament issued a Sept. 26 decree calling on the federal government to reassert military control over Kirkuk and its oil fields, which have been under KRG control since June 2014, when the Iraqi Army retreated in the face of a blitzkrieg by IS militants. The Oil Ministry would need to regain control of those fields in order to fulfill a plan, announced Tuesday, to rehabilitate the federal government's decimated northern export pipeline .
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has indicated he will use a wide array of state powers to assert sovereignty and gain leverage over the KRG, including the closure of airspace and the enforcement of arrest warrants for Kurdish leaders who organized the referendum. The Parliament had also previously voted to remove Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, despite lacking the ability to enforce that order.
Abadi has been careful to avoid threats of war, but some of his political rivals are taking a harder line, with an eye on winning over a nationalistic base in the 2018 national elections. Their bellicose rhetoric is especially dangerous because some Hashid paramilitary groups report more directly to political entities than the formal military chain of command.
"Elements within al-Hashid al-Shaabi, they are not a disciplined group that takes orders," said Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim in a Wednesday interview with Iraq Oil Report. "Sometimes they take it upon themselves to do things…. So rogue elements can start something."
Within this factionalized security structure, it is difficult to separate rumors from facts, and it is hard to know which plans and actions have the authorization of the commander in chief.
One senior Interior Ministry official in Baghdad said rumors were circulating of a "secret plan" in which Federal Police forces would advance beyond Peshmerga lines southwest of Kirkuk on the pretense of chasing IS militants.
"The main target isn't IS, but to stay in Kirkuk," the official said. "Then, if there is any confrontation, other Iraqi security forces would take part and support the Federal Police."
The official emphasized that he did not know if such a plan had actually been authorized or was being acted on.
Another federal Interior Ministry official, who works regularly with Hashid forces, said that Iraqi forces seemed to be maintaining an unusually aggressive posture in Hawija. After defeating IS in other areas, the Iraqi military has typically transferred control quickly to local police and other "hold forces."
"But we heard that during Abadi's recent visit to Hawija that the Iraqi security forces should stay, and not withdraw as they usually do when areas are retaken," the second Interior Ministry official said.
Kurdish security leaders have taken notice, including Kamal Kirkuki, the commander of Peshmerga forces stationed southwest of Kirkuk.
"We have seen a strange force, combined of al-Hashid al-Shabi, Iraqi forces and foreign troops disguised in the uniforms of the Hashid and the Iraqi security forces," said Kirkuki, referring obliquely to Iranian operatives who often embed with some Iraqi forces. "They have amassed opposite to Peshmerga defensive lines in southwest Kirkuk. This force is equipped with heavy weaponry."
Given the atmosphere of heated rhetoric, the proximity of such a force is enough to put the KRG on high alert.
"The concerns of an attack are triggered by the hostile and aggressive statements by the Iraqi officials that we regularly see in the press," Kirkuki said. "The Hashid commanders are publicly beating the drum of war."
Other Kurdish leaders said they do not expect war to break out.
"There is no indication of a possible confrontation," Yawar said. "We have no intention whatsoever to spark any clashes , and we believe Baghdad has no such intentions either."
Karim also said the Kurdish side has "absolutely no intention" to initiate hostilities.
"All we can do is strengthen our defenses," Karim said. "The best defense is to be strong and have deterrence."
Mohammed Hussein reported from Spain. Rawaz Tahir and Samya Kullab reported from Erbil. Ben Van Heuvelen reported from the United States. Kamaran al-Najar reported from Kirkuk. Iraqi staff reporting from Baghdad are anonymous for their security.