Did Bush Trade Kirkuk for Kurdish Brigades in the Baghdad Surge?

· dKo journal, Edgewise, Paleoblogs

I’ve had Kirkuk on the brain for quite a while now. Since I am not a pro, I figure I’m willing to be off base or completely wrong. Besides, it’s too long to read. So, since I have thought about it a lot, this is my Sharing Time contribution for today:
It seemed like a foregone conclusion. Everybody with any sense, including the inexorably all-powerful Iraq Study Group, had decided that the Kirkuk census and referendum, constitutionally scheduled for this December, must be put off. The Kurds threatened to simply seize Kirkuk if that happened, but some way would be found to avert that move.
Everybody knew Kirkuk would be deferred. But it looks like something must have happened. The Maliki government said last week it was going to proceed with paying Arabs to leave Kirkuk. He was not compelled by anything to suddenly bring this up.
The Kirkuk Arabs credibly claim the population, in preparation for the census, has already been “packed” with tens of thousands of Kurds who are not post-Saddam “returnees” at all, but rather had never lived there. So encouraging a further exodus of Arabs came to many as a shock.
Will the census and referendum, against predictions, go ahead? Maybe not; the settled expectations may hold good. But, if they do go ahead, why? I have a guess at part of the reason.
But, first, background: Why not go ahead?
If the Kurdistan autonomous region annexes the immensely oil-rich and gas-rich Kirkuk, either by referendum or by seizure, every gun in Iraq is going to be turned: The resident minorities in Kirkuk, who include Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Turkomens, Assyrians, Christians and others, will take up arms.
The Iraqi Sunni forces at large (the “Insurgents”)–whose central region would then be really bereft of gas and oil–will mobilize against an annexed Kirkuk in force. Baghdad will become secondary to them. The Al Qaeda elements will re-unite with the domestic Sunnis, and join them in this.
The Moktada-led Shiites, with their own central-region base of two million in Sadr City alone, who have already begun a pattern of attacks, will join in absolutely full force. The Shiites of the competing Badr Brigades might also be “shamed,” as Arabs and as Shiites, to back this effort at least to some degree.
Turkey may not invade, as threatened, with a modern force of 100,000 already massed at the border, but arms, logistics, commando forces, up-to-date NATO technology will be thrown in against the Kurds. Iran, like Turkey fearful of its own large Kurdish minority merging into a wealthy new Kurdish nation, will do everything it can as well. The Iraqi Army and police, except for Kurdish units, will certainly resist fighting against these forces, and, as Arabs, might join them in substantial numbers.
On the other side, the Kurds, who constitute the only militarily serious component of the Iraqi army, plus their Pesh Merga militia, well over 100,000-strong, trained, disciplined, and well armed will defend Kirkuk with utter desperation. Besides the oil, it is the heart of deeply felt Kurdish national aspirations, their Jerusalem; they will stop at nothing to “get it back.”
They have the advantages of a loyal populace fighting for their homes on intimately familiar ground, many of them fighting as partisans outside the regular army. And they have the advantages of defense, a deeply prepared, entrenched, hidden, possibly mined, war-gamed defense that has been years in the making.

The Americans? The Americans will be securing Baghdad.
Possibly no military will have ever been caught this thoroughly out of position. And who are the most serious allies at their side in Baghdad? The Kurds, the fully staffed Kurdish Brigades.
That is where my guesswork begins, concerning why the referendum might nevertheless actually go ahead this year. When Bush announced his surge, there were a number of “benchmark” commitments from the Iraqi government that went with it. But only one of them was immediate, visible, and indispensable. Iraq must match us brigade-for-brigade in the build-up. And these must be fully staffed brigades, not the usual 55%.
This was The Benchmark. The others were hard to understand and easy to forget. Without The Benchmark being met, upfront, right now, there was not even a Republican who would go along with Bush on the war. Without it, his total presidential meltdown would be swift, public, and complete. He needed those brigades. Where would they come from?
The good brigades were the Kurdish ones, the reanointed Pesh Merga militia in the North. The Kurds had very largely kept their own brigades at home, and they certainly had no incentive to send them into Baghdad. The Kurds would need to get something in return. Well, how about a commitment to hold the Kirkuk referendum on time? Indeed, if the referendum were moved to the next December, how many US troops would still be around, and how free would they be to act?
There were other commitment we’ve seen hints of since, especially in the oil law. The approved draft reported out to parliament, not yet ratified (unattainable Benchmark?), gives the Kurdish region effective authority to make its own contracts with international oil companies, along with accounting provisions worth many billions of dollars. (What counts as oil revenue going the central government vs. other compensation from the same corporation that could remain in the region? What can you subtract from the revenue as costs before you send the net amount in? Your local army, maybe? It is a wise saying that “Profit is what’s left over after everyone is finished stealing.“)
But for the Kurds, the referendum would have come first.
So, now Bush has some brigades and a surge. What’s next for Kirkuk? If there is fighting for Kirkuk, whether around a referendum or an impatient forcible annexation, the Kurdish surge brigades will leave Baghdad for home. Every other benchmark will be going up in flames. And US forces–supply lines in the South suddenly vulnerable–won’t know where to go or whom to fight.