Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 November - 3 December 2008
Issue No. 924
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Strange new bedfellows

The gathering ethnic crisis in Iraq could bring about seismic shifts in regional politics, says Saif Nasrawi

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An Iraqi holds his hands up during Friday noon prayers in Firdoos Square, central Baghdad. Thousands of mostly Shia followers of the firebrand anti-American cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr protested a security pact that would allow US troops to remain until 2011

As Iraqi politicians were pitched in a bitter dispute this week trying to resolve their dispute over a security pact with the United States, another political crisis was brewing between Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and his Kurdish partners in the government over the way they control and administer the semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan and their relations with the central government.

In recent weeks, Al-Maliki and the Kurdish leaders have exchanged sharp words over the Iraqi premier's creation of the Support Councils, military groups which are made up of pro- government tribal leaders. Iraqi Kurdish President Jalal Talabani has sent Al-Maliki a letter saying the money being spent on councils should go to the country's armed forces. Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and other Kurdish leaders have accused Al-Maliki of using the councils to bolster his influence in areas where he is seeking political support. "This is playing with fire," Barzani said in a recent news conference.

Al-Maliki promptly fired back and accused the Kurds of violating the country's constitution, citing as examples the signing of oil contracts with foreign companies in disregard to the central government, the opening of diplomatic missions abroad and challenges to the Iraqi army while trying to impose its authority in troubled areas. At a press conference Saturday he also bristled at Barzani's offer to allow US troops to establish bases in the Kurdish autonomous region in case the Iraqi parliament won't approve the security agreement with Washington.

Iraq's ethnic Kurds have maintained an autonomous region that comprises three of the country's 18 provinces. In recent months, the Shia-led government in Baghdad, which includes Kurds in prominent positions, has accused Kurdish leaders of attempting to expand their territory by deploying their militia, known as Peshmerga, to areas south of the autonomous region.

Among other things, the Kurds and Iraq's government are at odds over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the autonomous region, and over how Iraq's oil revenue ought to be distributed. In July tension between the government and the Kurds rose as Iraqi army soldiers and the Peshmerga units came close to clashing in Khanaqin, a strategic town on the border with Iran. Iraqi officials were growing wary of Kurdish encroachment on several towns, including Khanaqin, which are beyond the borders of Kurdistan, a process that has pushed thousands of Iraqi Arabs to flee their lands.

Since 1991 when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein pulled the Iraqi army and administration out of rebellious northern Iraq, the Kurds have run their affairs with increasing autonomy relying on the US and British-enforced no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the region from Saddam's military. After the US-led invasion in 2003 the Kurds enjoyed more power leading many Iraqis to accuse them of attempting to build an independent entity though they have insisted that they only wish to remain part of a federal Iraq.

On Sunday The Washington Post revealed that Kurdish officials this autumn took delivery of three planeloads of small arms and ammunition imported from Bulgaria. Quoting three US military officials, the paper said the acquisition had occurred outside the weapons procurement procedures of Iraq's central government. It said the weapons arrived in the northern city of Sulaimaniya in September on three C-130 cargo planes. The Kurdistan Regional Government did not deny the transfer and said in a statement that the shipments do not violate Iraq's constitution.

The shipments, however, which are only described as large quantity of weapons, were disclosed at a time of growing concern about the prospect of an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the government as Kurds are mounting a challenge to the Baghdad government and attempting to expand their control over the enclave.

One of the reasons for the increasing tension is a meeting which Talabani has arranged this week with representatives of the Arab Sunni groups to urge them to stand against Al-Maliki's plan to expand the Support Councils sparking concern about Kurdish attempts to build a Sunni alliance against the Shias. Shia leaders immediately expressed fear that Kurds, who are mostly Sunnis, may be trying to forge a Sunni Arab-Kurdish alliance ahead of next year's local and general elections.

The recent standoff between Arab and Kurdish political factions is certainly seen as a possible ethnic battleground. The government considers it a step on the way to creating a strong Kurdish government at its expense. This is why the Iraqi government has recently refrained from using the Peshmerga forces in areas outside of the Kurdish domain and has taken steps to replace predominantly Kurdish forces with Sunni and Shia soldiers in Nineveh, one of the most violent areas in Iraq.

The new dispute could have even larger ramifications for Iraq's neighbours who see Kurdish economic and territorial ambitions more a risk to their own security and stability. As the new crisis brews, Iraq's neighbours are closely watching and fear that the new ethnic dispute might spill across their borders. Both Turkey and Iran, with large Kurdish minorities, have said they would oppose the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, as the autonomous region is known. Iran which has strong ties with Shia groups and has long exerted influence over Iraqi politics is also concerned more Kurdish power would undermine its interests in Iraq.

This will also become a pressing security concern for Arab countries in the region because the dispute has the potential to pit Arabs against Kurds and provoke intervention from neighbouring states. A Kurdish-Shia crisis will most certainly engulf the whole Middle East in a larger conflict pitching Iran and even Turkey against Israel which is traditionally pro-Kurd.

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