Understanding and managing intra-state territorial contestation: Iraq's disputed territories in comparative perspective (Jun 2015 - May 2018)


Professor Stefan Wolff (s.wolff@bham.ac.uk)

Research fellow: Dr Argyro Kartsonaki

Academic partners (name/HEI): Professor Gareth Stansfield (University of Exeter)

Funder/ funding: ESRC


Iraq remains a country of fundamental importance to the international community, and especially to the UK. Following regime change in 2003, Iraq lurched from crisis to crisis, with the political process maintained by the presence of overwhelming US military force until the withdrawal of US combat forces in December 2011. The disputed territories were certainly tense during this time, but remained relatively calm due to the efforts made by the US to ensure that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) did not attempt to bring the disputed territories within their borders by force, and that the Government of Iraq (GoI) resisted the temptation to occupy the territories with their own security forces.

The situation is now very different. With the US and her allies having withdrawn military forces from Iraq, the last two years have witnessed a return of significant instability in the relationships between elites, and have seen a rise in the rhetoric of sectarianism and ethnic nationalism. Further escalation of the conflict between the KRG and GoI would have a profound and transformative impact upon the political direction of Iraq in the future. Iraq remains extremely exposed and vulnerable to the manipulations of other Middle East regional powers (namely Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf states), while being intrinsically tied into the deteriorating situation in Syria. As such, the maintenance of stability in Iraq and the prevention of conflict between key actors are deemed of critical importance not only in Iraq itself, but also among international stakeholders, including the UK, US, the EU, and the UN.

This dispute has significant consequences for the political stability of Iraq as a whole, and clearly impacts upon, and is influenced by, wider regional and global geopolitical structures and dynamics. The longer the dispute is allowed to remain unresolved, the greater the danger that it will escalate into violence. Hence, the overarching question that our project seeks to answer is what options are available for resolving the dispute over Iraq’s disputed territories. In line with the aims of the project as outlined above, our project addresses the following cross-cutting research questions:

  1. What are the causes of the current territorial dispute?
  2. How can territorial disputes of this and similar nature be managed successfully?
  3. What plans have been proposed to date to settle the territorial dispute in Iraq, how have they fared, and what alternatives might be feasible and viable?


The project will make a contribution to enhancing our knowledge and understanding of one of the most significant disputes in Iraq – the contestation of a large swathe of land known as the ‘disputed territories’ that lie to the south of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR) and that are administered by the Government of Iraq (GoI), with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) demanding their incorporation into the KR. It acknowledges the complex nature of territorial disputes and encompasses, developing where necessary, work on models explaining the causes, consequences and responses to conflict, integrating multiple theoretical approaches across multiple levels of analysis.

In terms of policy impact, research on the causes, consequences, and responses to the conflict over the disputed territories are a surprisingly under-explored subject. Given the significance of Iraq in the wider security setting of the Middle East and Gulf region, and the critical importance of the situation in the disputed territories for the stability and overall territorial cohesion of the country, this project will create significant opportunities to inform and support policy formulation and implementation by stakeholders in the conflict, be they local, national, regional or global actors.

Project aims and objectives

  1. The overarching objective of the project is to provide a theoretically grounded and empirically up-to-date analysis of:
  2. the causes of actual and potential conflict in the disputed territories;
  3. the options currently available for the management of such conflict in the disputed territories and
  4. feasible and viable alternative strategies of conflict management identified by combining the findings of (i) and (ii) with a broader comparative perspective on managing territorial disputes.

The project team will thus investigate the nature and dynamics of conflict over disputed territories and its management; contribute to the development of a theory on the management of intra-state territorial disputes; and provide a comprehensive, original and up-to-date study of the local, national, regional and global dynamics of managing Iraq’s disputed territories.

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