A new divide
Arab-Kurd strife might shape future Iraqi politics, writes Saif Nasrawi
Rising tensions between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds over a proposed provincial elections law and the redeployment of Kurdish military forces outside Iraq's ethnically mixed cities indicate a potentially grave ethnic divide that could tear apart an already fragile nation.
Over the last three weeks, Iraqi Arab and Kurdish lawmakers have been intensely quarrelling over passing legislation to move forward with provincial elections originally scheduled for October. UN officials had suggested moving ahead with the vote in all provinces except Kirkuk, pending a committee determining the status of the northern oil-rich city.
The Iraqi parliament Tuesday failed for the sixth time this month to reach agreement on a proposal put forward by Stephen de Mistura, UN special representative in Iraq, to postpone elections in Kirkuk while the remaining 17 Iraqi provinces go to the polls.
Earlier this month, Mistura proposed forming a parliamentary committee of Kirkuk's major ethnic groups to draft a specific electoral law for the city no later than 31 March 2009 alongside a census to identify the exact demographic composition of Kirkuk.
Arab and Turkomen political factions have rejected the fourth article in Mistura's proposal that gives the largely Kurdish-dominated local government of Kirkuk the principal supervisory role over the committee, a condition they view as favouring the Kurds who also maintain a strong military presence in the city located 260 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Omar Al-Juburi, a prominent Sunni lawmaker, accused Kurdish leaders of trying to undermine the powers granted to the central government by the constitution. "Arabs and Turkomens are worried by the Kurds' insistence to control the Kirkuk committee," he told reporters Tuesday. Al-Juburi added that the Iraqi constitution clearly stipulates that organising local and national polls is the sole responsibility of the central government.
Similar reservations were echoed by Turkomen leaders who have raised fears of ongoing plans to annex Kirkuk to Kurdistan, the highly autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. "We don't trust the local government of Kirkuk as the Kurds occupy over 90 per cent of its seats," Hassan Touran, a leading member of the Turkomen Front of Iraq, said.
Touran referred to a statement issued by Kirkuk's local government last month threatening to take a unilateral decision to join Kurdistan if Iraqi MPs failed to reach a compromise over its future status through a referendum. He stressed that Kirkuk's major ethnic groups -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkomens -- must have equal representation in Kirkuk's governing bodies.
The majority of Iraqi Arab and Turkomen political factions boycotted the last local polls in 2005 in protest against what they viewed as widespread fraud and voter intimidation carried out by the Peshmerga, the nearly 280,000-strong well-trained Kurdish security forces.
Kurds, on the other hand, have strongly condemned continued controversy over Kirkuk, considering it prelude to retreat from a constitutional commitment to create a federal system in Iraq.
"The Kurds have given their utmost concessions so far," Adnan Al-Mufti, the parliamentary speaker in Kurdistan said. "Everybody must be responsible for keeping [to] a federal Iraq," he told Kurdish lawmakers during a parliamentary session Tuesday.
Adnan added that current disputes over the provincial elections law "must not be portrayed as a national struggle between Arabs and Kurds".
Masoud Al-Barzani, chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, suggested Monday that recent political developments in Iraq concern redefining the foundations of the political process, especially the establishment of a federal government. "The impasse between Baghdad and Irbil [the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region] is basically about the different interpretations of the constitution and the power-sharing mechanisms," he said.
Kurdish leaders strongly rejected in July a draft local elections law that granted a 32 per cent equal representations in Kirkuk's governing bodies to Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, while the remaining four per cent of the city's local council seats would go to the Christian minority.
The growing rift between Iraq's once resolute political allies, Kurds and Shias, was also evident on two recent occasions: the confrontation in the ethnically mixed province of Diyala and the Kurd's objection to Baghdad's plans to upgrade the Iraqi air force by procuring US F-16 attack aircraft.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki ordered his troops to stop short of entering Khanaqin, a mixed town of Arab and Kurdish residents along the Iranian border in Diyala province. Khanaqin is considered one of the "disputed territories" cited in Article 140 of the Iraq constitution. The article outlines a legal process intended to reverse the "Arabisation" campaigns of the former Baathist regime and settle the territorial disputes between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad.
Driven by force from Khanaqin, Iraqi Kurds have been returning to the city since 2003 and now form the majority. The local council has proposed integrating the city within the Kurdistan region, but like with Kirkuk and Mosul, a reluctant Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has delayed finalising Khanaqin's status.
Last month, under Al-Maliki's authority, the Iraqi army ordered Kurdish forces to withdraw from Khanaqin within 24 hours. Citing direct orders from the KRG, the Peshmerga refused and Iraqi troops entered Khanaqin. To defuse the escalating situation, the KRG and the central government came to a temporary agreement calling for the restoration of the status quo. As part of the accord, Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the Khanaqin affiliated districts of Qurat Taba and Jalawlaa.
Recent media reports suggest that Iraqi and US officials are growing wary of Kurdish encroachment on a 480 kilometre-long swath of territory beyond the borders of Kurdistan, a process that has pushed thousands of Iraqi Arabs to flee their lands. Top Iraqi officials argue that recent standoff between Arab and Kurdish political factions should not be seen as a possible ethnic battleground, but must rather be viewed as a step on the way to creating a strong central government and maintaining recent security gains.
Al-Maliki emphasised Friday that the prerequisite for federalism in Iraq is the creation of a strong central authority. "A state can not be established without a strong national government. Political partnership (between Arabs and Kurds) must not mean vetoing a strong central government," Al-Maliki told Iraqi reporters.
He added that security, diplomacy, and the distribution of Iraqi oil revenues should be laid entirely within the powers of the central government.
"Al-Maliki is trying to take advantage of his recent military successes in central and southern Iraq to retract from federalism," a senior Kurdish official told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity. He cautioned that the Kurds would not tolerate any attempt to go back to the pre-2003 Iraqi political system with Baghdad being the prime mover of all political, economic, military and cultural affairs.
"Kurds are ready to negotiate the details of federalism, not the principle per se," he said.
Another Kurdish lawmaker attributed the defiant tone of the Shia-led government to the upcoming US presidential elections. "The Shia believe that [Barack] Obama has a strong chance of becoming the next president. This is why they are toughening their positions," he said on condition of anonymity.
The same source added that Al-Maliki's calculations are based on the idea that Obama's victory will lay the grounds for a huge reduction in US troops in Iraq, a vacuum that the Shia- dominated security forces could fill.
Obama has pledged to substantially reduce US forces in Iraq within 16 months of assuming power.