- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Top officials in Iraqi Kurdistan are offering to put an independence bid for the semi-autonomous region on hold, in exchange for a halt in ongoing violence by Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed paramilitaries in the country’s north.

Senior leaders with the Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG are calling for “an immediate ceasefire and halt to all military operations in the Kurdistan region” in order to create an “open dialogue” between Erbil and Baghdad over the fate of Kurdish-held territories in the ethnically diverse Ninevah province, says an official KRG statement.

“As Iraq and Kurdistan are faced with grave and dangerous circumstances, we are all obliged to act responsibly in order to prevent further violence and clashes,” between Kurdish peshmerga forces, Iraqi military troops and Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs, officials said in the statement released late Tuesday night.

“Continued fighting does not lead any side to victory, but it will drive the country towards disarray and chaos, affecting all aspects of life,” KRG officials said. 

The move is a clear win for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who directed government troops to begin retaking Kurdish-held territories in northern Iraq, days after voters in Iraqi Kurdistan overwhelmingly approved a referendum that put hat put territory on the path to independence.

Iraqi government forces and PMU units trained and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps or IRGC, rapidly and violently recaptured critical territories in northern Iraq’s Kirkuk and Sinjar governorates earlier this month.

KRG President Masoud Barzani claimed both areas would remain under Erbil’s control after peshmerga units liberated both areas from Islamic State rule in 2014. Baghdad argued the move effectively extended Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders far beyond the lines set in the Iraqi constitution and placed Kirkuk, home to Iraq’s largest oil deposits, under Kurdish control.

While backroom negotiations between Baghdad, Erbil and Washington had been underway over who would control Kirkuk and northern Iraq’s other contested areas, it was Erbil’s decision to press ahead with its independence referendum vote in September that triggered Mr. Abadi’s armed response.

Outmanned and outgunned, Erbil ceded control of Kirkuk and handed over Sinjar to Iraqi forces and PMU elements, federalized into the country’s military by Mr. Abadi during the height of the ISIS war.

But Erbil’s decision Tuesday to suspend the referendum’s results and pursue talks with Baghdad also gives the Pentagon and White House political room to salvage the U.S.-backed coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq.

U.S. military commanders and diplomats had been opposed to the Kurdish referendum vote, fearing a successful vote would tear apart Washington’s remarkable feat of uniting lifelong enemies in the region into a formidable military coalition to defeat ISIS. Prior to Tuesday night’s announcement, Trump White House and the Pentagon continue to tout the cohesiveness of the anti-ISIS coalition.

“The ISIS fight is over and the new fight for the region is unwinding now,” former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said earlier this month.

“Nobody in Erbil is thinking of the ISIS threat [anymore]. No one in Baghdad is thinking about it … [and] the U.S. government has not gotten its head around that yet,” Mr. Edelman, now a distinguished fellow at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added.

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