*_The Hindu Editorial _*

_The conflict that broke out in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk between Iraqi government troops aided by Shia militias and the Peshmerga, the military wing of Iraqi Kurdistan, this month is a reminder of the divisions that run deep in the country. Both government troops and the Peshmerga are part of the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. They are also American allies. The U.S. provides air cover in the war against the IS and offers military advice to Iraqi troops, besides supplying weapons. Likewise, the Peshmerga has received arms from the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and other western countries. The U.S. also has a consulate in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan where hundreds of its diplomats and their families live. But neither the common American factor nor the shared interests in the war against terrorists has prevented the conflict in Kirkuk, that was captured by the Peshmerga from the IS in 2014. The alliance between the Kurds and Baghdad is tactical rather than strategic. In 2014, after the IS scored a series of military victories in Iraq, including in the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, Kirkuk and Mosul, both Baghdad and Erbil were threatened by the prospect of IS advances. They set aside their historical differences and joined hands against a common enemy. But the IS is in retreat. Most of the cities it captured, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, have been freed. This receding IS threat has exposed cracks in the alliance._

_More immediately, the Kurdish political leadership’s push for independence from Iraq has alarmed Baghdad. Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, wanted to mobilise the momentum created in the battle against the IS in favour of independence. Despite strong opposition from Baghdad and western capitals, Mr. Barzani went ahead with a referendum in late September, in which Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence. Though the vote is not binding on the Kurdish regional government, it has undoubtedly strengthened Kurdish nationalist politics across borders. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rushed troops to retake Kirkuk. Mr. Barzani’s move was politically counter-productive as he is not in a position to achieve independence for Kurdistan. Taking responsibility for the mess, he has announced he will step down as President in November. This actually aggravates the crisis. The new Kurdish leader may lack his charisma or authority but will have to deal with stronger nationalist aspirations. Baghdad has sent a tough message to Erbil by sending troops to Kirkuk: if the Kurds go ahead with plans to secede, it would invite a strong military response. The cracks in the coalition would be good news for the IS. The only country that could constructively intervene in the conflict is the U.S., which enjoys good ties with Baghdad and Erbil. It should mediate between the two sides on the Kurdish national question. Unless that is addressed, the chances for another civil war in Iraq remain high._

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