Kurdistan: Why It Could Spark New Front In Iraq War

By Jane Arraf

Christian Science Monitor
July 24 2009

The region, which has increasingly been at odds with Baghdad, holds
elections Saturday for a new regional government.

Mosul, Iraq – Iraqi Kurdistan is wrapping up an unusually free-wheeling
election campaign that is likely to shift, if not overturn, the
political order of this semi-autonomous region when the votes are
cast on Saturday.

But amid the calls for change and allegations of nepotism and
corruption, Kurdistan’s politicians do agree on one issue: The desire
for the region’s borders to be extended into the oil-rich area around
Kirkuk – an issue that was supposed to be put to a referendum in
December 2007, but was delayed by an ethnic-Arab faction in the
Iraqi parliament.

As the American combat role in Iraq diminishes, one of the major
tasks for the US has become trying to prevent a flare-up of tensions
between Arabs and Kurds, centered around the land claims, which some
fear could ignite a new front in the war in Iraq.

Recent incidents, including a confrontation at the Mosul dam between
Kurdish forces and their Iraqi Army counterparts, raised fears that
the simmering tension could escalate as both sides stake their claims
ahead of national elections near the end of the year.

Huge amounts of money and power at stake

The US military has been trying to help build trust between Kurdish and
Iraqi Army commanders and political leaders on the ground, including
informing each other of troop movements, sharing intelligence, and
creating joint command posts.

That has had some success. But with huge amounts of money and power
at stake, the problem is a much wider one.

"It’s the most dangerous course of action for Iraq that if the
Arab-Kurd issues are not resolved peacefully they will dissolve
into armed conflict and that is a very real possibility," says
Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of US forces in seven northern
Iraqi provinces.

At issue is a 300-mile arc of disputed territory that the Kurdish
regional government believes should be under its control but is within
the borders of territory administered by the central government. Almost
all of those areas are along the "Green Line" – the de facto border
that has divided Iraqi Kurdistan from central government territory
since the Kurds broke away after the 1991 Gulf War.

Kurds, feeling betrayed, warn war could break out

The issue of the Kurdish-Arab division of power and resources is
a broad one, but centers around Kirkuk, the disputed city at the
heart of the northern oil fields. Kirkuk’s fate is tied up in Article
140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which would allow Kurds expelled by
Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s to be able to return, as well as
a census and a referendum to decide whether the city should be part
of Iraqi Kurdistan or an independent province. Since being blocked
in the Iraqi parliament, the referendum has been stuck in Iraq’s
constitutional court.

The article is part of a 2005 constitution drafted under US auspices
that deferred some of Iraq’s most fundamental decisions and has been
called a ticking time bomb.

"Expect war," Kurdish leader Khasro Ghoran says bluntly. "For 80 years
we have been shedding blood for these areas and we’re not going to
give up. If Article 140 is not implemented, there will be war."

Mr. Goran, who was deputy provincial governor until provincial
elections in January broke the Kurdish hold on power in Mosul, is
more publicly hard-line than most. But he exemplifies the depth of
resentment between Iraqi Arabs who believe the Kurds are making a
power grab and Kurdish officials who believe they are being betrayed
by Iraq’s Shiite-led government and its allies.

"If we had borders with a neutral state – if we had borders with
Israel, with Armenia, with the Ukraine, with any other country, it
would be better for us. If we had an ocean between us it would be
better for us," he says.

Ultimate solution must be political

Without even a census to determine the demographics of Kirkuk and
other areas, sorting out who should control the disputed areas is a
daunting task. Although the immediate danger is on the ground, the
solution has to be a high-level political settlement between Baghdad
and the Kurdish regional government in Arbil.

"The challenge here is to undo through democratic means what was
done by force," says Alex Laskaris, head of the US State Department’s
Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninevah. "Saddam arbitrarily drew
lines – moved people north, moved people south. That’s very easy for
a dictatorship because you can do it. Trying to do it democractically
is going to be different."

How the tensions are playing out in Ninevah

In Ninevah Province, which contains large areas in dispute, the new
governor Atheel al-Nujaifi was elected on a platform widely seen
as anti-Kurdish. Sunni Arabs had previously boycotted the political
process but in January Mr. Nujaifi’s al-Hadbaa party won a majority
of seats, reversing the balance of power in what had been an almost
completely Kurdish-controlled provincial council.

Nujaifi has pointedly made an effort at asserting provincial control
over areas claimed by the Kurdish regional government. At one point
a refusal by Kurdish militiamen to allow him into Bashiqa, within
Ninevah’s provincial boundaries, came close to gunfire.

"What the Kurds are saying about how they want to divide the area is
illogical and unnatural," says Nujaifi. He said he believed the July 25
elections for the Kurdish regional government could improve the climate
if the Kurdish opposition, seen as less hard-line, makes headway
against the two parties which hold a virtual monopoly on power there.

Nujaifi says the US is allied too closely with the Kurds. At a time
when many Iraqi politicians are striving to distance themselves from
American involvement, incumbent Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani
has appeared with former US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilizad in
the final week of campaigning.

Nujaifi warns that if Sunni Arabs believe they’re being treated
unfairly they could abandon the political process. The insurgency in
Iraq was fueled by Sunni Arabs disenfranchised when the US dissolved
Iraq’s former security institutions and prevented many former Baath
Party members from getting jobs.

"Through tremendous political effort we were able to enter the
political arena and convince the people that political work can
translate into real results. If we’re not successful at doing this
there will be some very forceful reactions," the governor says.

Although the Kurds have traditionally expected help from US forces,
American commanders trying to defuse tension on the ground are making
it clear they won’t stand in the middle.

"I told them, ‘I’m taking my guys and I’m separating myself so if
you start fighting it’s your decision,’ " says Col. Gary Volesky,
describing the incident in Bashiqa where Kurdish forces prevented
Iraqi forces from entering. "I said, ‘If this goes violent we’re not
supporting anyone.’ "