Tensions flare in Iraq
The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq is supposed to herald a new beginning for the country, but bitter disputes over oil and territory might yet spoil the celebrations, writes Salah Nasrawi
A bitter row over the control of a military base in the disputed northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk is heightening tensions between the Iraqi government and the Kurds as US troops prepare to leave Iraq next month.
Last Thursday, local Kurdish police blocked the transit of Iraqi military and government officials who had traveled to Kirkuk in order to enter the Al-Hurriya military base for a handover ceremony for departing US troops.
Kurdish officials had earlier warned the government in the capital Baghdad from sending Iraqi army forces to take over the military facility, which they said they wanted to turn into a civilian airport instead.
The dispute was temporarily resolved when Kurdish police finally allowed senior Iraqi army commanders and a dozen military vehicles to enter the base for the handover ceremony when assurances were given that no troops would be stationed at the base.
The conflict is the latest sign in increasing tensions between the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north as the United States prepares to bring its nine-year occupation of Iraq to an end by 31 December.
Tensions have also been running high over a host of other key issues, such as oil resources, power-sharing in national policy-making, and control over contested territories on the border between the Kurdish self-ruled region and the rest of Iraq.
The dispute over the Al-Hurriya base sparked fears of wider ethnic conflict as news spread that additional Kurdish security forces, or peshmergas, had been sent to Kirkuk, the capital of the ethnically mixed province.
Ali Ghaidan, the commander of Iraq's ground forces who led the army team that eventually entered the base, said that the army would take over control and ruled out the possibility of turning the facility into a civilian airport because of its strategic importance to the Iraqi air force.
Iraqi media reports have suggested that troops belonging to the army's 15th brigade of the 16th division, stationed just outside Kirkuk, were sent to secure the nine-square-kilometre site.
The move quickly drew condemnation from politicians in the autonomous Kurdish region, who want to incorporate Kirkuk against the wishes of other Iraqis.
Jabbar Yawer, a senior official at the Kurdish peshmergas ministry, accused the Baghdad government of violating an understanding that it would not send Iraqi army units to Kurdish-controlled areas.
Tribal chiefs and leaders of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, which represents the city's Arab population, praised the Iraqi army for taking control of the facility, even asking the Baghdad government to send more troops to Kirkuk.
It is not clear why the US army stationed in Kirkuk did not coordinate the handover with the Iraqi government and Kurdish authorities in advance, given that US commanders have been warning of a possible explosion of ethnic conflicts in the region when American troops leave.
A spokesman for the US military in Iraq, major-general Jeffrey Buchanan, said that the base has not been officially turned over to the Iraqi army.
Events in Kirkuk highlight the level of mistrust between the central government and the Kurdish region, with territorial conflicts and other disagreements remaining unresolved.
While the Kurds say they have historic rights to the city, Kirkuk is officially outside the three northern provinces that comprise the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
The Kirkuk airbase, some 240km north of Baghdad, is a strategic military facility that dates back to British colonial rule.
Before the US-led invasion in 2003, it was a major Iraqi air force base having support facilities for several fighter and bomber squadrons. It is located near Iraq's northern oil fields and close to the borders with Iran and Turkey.
During the Iraq-Iran War in the 1980s, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein used the airbase to host the warplanes that fought against the Iranians. They were also used to crack down on Kurdish rebellions.
The US is believed to have spent millions of dollars renovating the base's runways and other facilities and upgrading communication and radar systems.
Kurdish control of the airfield would give the Kurdish regional government key military and security advantages and would add to the strategic assets it has accumulated since the US-led invasion, pushing it one step closer to formal statehood.
Meanwhile, the central Iraqi government is bent on renovating the base in order to make it part of its efforts to rebuild the country's military infrastructure.
The conflict over the base comes at a time when the Baghdad government is preparing to take control of Iraq's defense following the American troop withdrawal.
Iraq has struck a deal to buy 18 F-16 fighter jets worth a total of $3 billion from the United States, these providing the basis for Iraq's renovated air force. The country is believed to possess fewer than 100 helicopters and around 60 mostly Russian-made military aircraft.
Iraq lacks its own modern radar systems, as the nation's nascent air force is still working to establish key support systems to ensure that its airfields function properly.
The country only took responsibility for all its airspace in early October, for the first time since 2003, and an Iraqi fighter plane was scheduled to patrol the country's airspace this week for the first time since then.
Disagreement has also erupted between Kurdish officials and the Iraqi government about an oil deal that the Kurds have signed with Exxon Mobil, America's largest oil company, for six exploration blocs in the north of the country.
Iraqi oil officials said that some of the blocs were not in fact in the Kurdistan region, but instead were in contested regions in the neighbouring Nineveh province north of Kirkuk and in the Salaheddin province to the south.
On Monday, Iraq said that the national government might replace Exxon Mobil with Royal Dutch Shell on a giant project in southern Iraq if the US company followed through on the deal to explore for oil in the Kurdish region of the country.
Nearly a quarter of Iraq's oil exports come from the fields around Kirkuk, which sits atop some of the world's biggest oil reserves.
As US forces prepare to leave the region, the stakes involved in the oil-rich territory along a 480km arc just beyond Iraq's Kurdish region are enormous. Even those fully behind the US withdrawal fear problems in Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
According to a less pessimistic scenario, there might not be an immediate flare-up after the Americans pull out, yet the disputes between the Baghdad government and the Kurds over land and oil are nevertheless likely to continue to threaten national stability for many years to come.