Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi began his weekly press conference by talking about military progress in the fight against ISIL, as he nearly always does, even when there are pressing controversies.
Not even the unexpected collapse of Kurdish peshmerga forces in what are referred to as the “disputed territories” disrupted the routine start to his briefing on Tuesday.
Mr Al Abadi was speaking after his forces had seized Kirkuk and other territories adjacent to the borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Ninawa, Makhmur, Salah Al Din and Diyala.
Following a parliamentary vote, the prime minister had demanded a pull-back to lines of control prior to the collapse of the Iraqi army in June 2014 in the face ISIL’s attack. The total collapse of Kurdish forces back to 2003 borders went beyond what Baghdad showed any signs of expecting a week before.
In his press conference, Mr Al Abadi quickly moved to talking about Kirkuk and praising the peaceful manner in which federal forces took control of the city and other key facilities in and adjacent to Kirkuk through agreement with local Kurdish commanders without conflict.
There were skirmishes resulting in casualties in areas away from the city; Mr Al Abadi briefly conceded this, but framed it was violence “by extremists” in Tuz Khurmato, an area of Salah Al Din east of Kirkuk which is ethnically-mixed. And indeed the area is outside of the state’s control, but the “extremists” include Shiite Turkmen militiamen belonging to the Badr Organisation, an Iran-aligned faction which also controls the interior ministry. Mr Al Abadi said he would be dispatching a regular army unit to secure the area, but Tuz Khurmato has been the scene of intermittent ethnosectarian conflict for years and it will be surprising if it goes smoothly.
Mr Al Abadi spoke in a manner suggesting he was mindful of the importance of the tone he used. When he shifted from talking about the fight against terrorists to the federal takeover in Kirkuk, the prime minister spoke in a matter-of-fact tone without smiling, a clear contrast to the upbeat and usually triumphalist tone of government officials and Arab politicians over the past two days.
Mr Abadi stressed the “patriotism” of Kurdish military forces who, he said, defied orders by Kurdish leaders to fight their fellow Iraqis. This was an only slightly veiled allusion to Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who led the push for the KRG’s September 25 referendum, setting off the current crisis. When a journalist used the word “liberation” in a context that might be taken badly by the Kurds, Mr Al Abadi was quick to stress “there is no liberation” of areas where the peshmerga had been, present since both sides were Iraqi forces.
President Fuad Masum’s speech on Tuesday struck a similar tone and content as Mr Al Abadi’s, although he naturally spoke from a different angle. A Kurdish leader who is close to the Talabani family which dominates the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s chief rival, Mr Masum has had to walk a fine line.
Mr Masum had faced criticism and even calls for his impeachment after remaining silent during the referendum dispute, and afterward, during a September 28 interview with Al Hurra television, he gently distanced himself from Mr Barzani by saying that Kurdish secession could be made unnecessary if Baghdad agreed to legislative compromises. Now, amid a massive wave of fervour among the Arab and Turkmen population, Mr Masum sufficed by praising the peshmerga's role in protecting Kirkuk after the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2014, implying that sole Kurdish control of security in Kirkuk was inherently temporary.
Much will depend now on the conduct of Iraqi forces in mixed areas, with potential abuses by government-linked Hashed Al Shaabi Shiite militias a special concern. On Tuesday Mr Al Abadi stressed that he had warned officers that firm action would be taken against any security personnel who engaged in abuses. He also noted that in Kirkuk and other areas local police, who in Kurdish areas are heavily Kurdish, remained in place.
Videos of Arab soldiers desecrating pictures of Barzani, or especially the Kurdistan flag, are unhelpful, but what would really damage the national fabric would be any credible reports of abuse of civilians. So far life appears to be returning to normal in major centres like Kirkuk and Khaniqin and so the worst fears may turn out to be unjustified.
It will not be realistic to expect any wide-ranging negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil between now and the next national elections, which are supposed to take place by May.
However exaggerated some of the rhetoric may be considered to be, Mr Barzani has been so thoroughly demonised within the national Arab media that direct talks between him and Mr Al Abadi cannot be expected. Indeed, since the referendum Mr Al Abadi himself has attacked Mr Barzani repeatedly and even suggested, during an earlier press conference, that an arrest warrant for him might be coming.
What we can expect between now and the election is much emphasis by federal officials on the extension of “Iraqi sovereignty” over all areas of Iraq, as Abadi spokesman Saad Al Hadithi put it on state television during Tuesday’s evening news. If social tensions may be contained, that may have to be enough for now.