Towards Kurdish secession?
As the political crisis in Iraq deepens, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish region have been flexing their military muscles, writes Salah Nasrawi
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Security forces gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion in a shopping area in Karradah, Baghdad, Iraq
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani cranked up the rhetoric against the Baghdad government this week, saying that the Kurds' patience was running out and that they could take up arms if felt threatened by the central government.
Barzani's comments came as tensions between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region intensified following reports of a military standoff between Peshmerga Kurdish soldiers and the Iraqi army.
"Our patience has lasted too long. We have always preferred an Iraqi solution, but if there is none such we will resort to a Kurdish solution and return to the people of Kurdistan," Barzani said in a broadcast on Saturday.
The Kurds and the Baghdad government have been embroiled in a long-running dispute over oil, land and revenue sharing.
While Baghdad insists that it has the sole authority to manage the oil fields and sign deals in the north of the country, the Kurds argue that the contracts they have signed with foreign oil companies are in line with the country's constitution.
They have been forced to sell their crude oil abroad, they say, because of delayed revenue transfers from the central government.
Baghdad has threatened that it could cut the payments it makes to the Kurdish region by the amount it has been losing as a result of the Kurdish oil sales, and Barzani has repeatedly threatened that if the crisis persists he will call for a referendum on the possible secession of Kurdistan from Iraq.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Barzani said on Monday that he would view it as a "declaration of war" if the central government cut funding to the Kurdish region, also warning that the Kurds would take measures to counter any military threats from the Iraqi government.
The remarks appeared to be intended to serve notice to the central government that Barzani does not intend to back off in the escalating row over the Kurdish government's authority over the region.
On Friday, the Kurdish administration deployed Kurdish soldiers to block Iraqi government troops from reaching a border point with Syria, around 7,000 Iraqi troops having been sent to control the border crossing between the two countries.
Syrian opposition forces took control of the strategic border crossing last week, also seizing another crossing post with Iraq in the Anbar province to the south.
Kurdish leaders say that Iraqi troops were sent to the region to secure Syria's eastern border in order to assist the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
They have vowed that they will not allow government troops to operate in the area, which is part of the Arab-dominated Mosul province of Iraq but has been under Kurdish control since 1992.
The Kurds' defiance sparked a wave of indignation in Baghdad, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki warned of "dire consequences" if the stand-off continued.
Al-Maliki said that the government troops were deploying outside the Kurdish region. "The behaviour of the Kurdistan region's troops is unconstitutional, and it could have triggered a [military] conflict," Al-Maliki said in a statement.
Members of the Iraqi parliament loyal to Al-Maliki have also accused the Kurdish region of hosting and training Syrian Kurdish rebels, allegedly using the crossing point to allow them into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Iraqi media quoted several members of parliament as saying that they planned to ask Barzani to appear before them for questioning on this and other disputes.
In his interview with Al-Jazeera, Barzani acknowledged that Syrian Kurdish soldiers who had defected from the Syrian army had received military training in the region, saying that they were intended to be deployed there to fill any "security vacuum" as Syrian security forces retreat.
Several Kurdish towns in northern Syria have fallen into the hands of Kurdish fighters over recent days, and the Baghdad government has rejected attempts to arm the Syrian rebels and is opposed to calls for Al-Assad's departure.
It says the training will deepen the ongoing political crisis in Iraq as foreign policy is supposed to be the prerogative of the central government alone.
A visit by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) chief Abdel-Basset Sida to the Kurdish enclave this week put another twist on the already complicated state of inter-Kurdish relations and highlighted the differences between the Kurdish administration and Iraq's central government towards neighbouring Syria.
Sida was reportedly trying to seek Barzani's help in convincing Syrian Kurdish leaders to form a united Kurdish front and join the uprising against Al-Assad.
A further recent source of tension between Baghdad and the Kurdish region came on Sunday when a high-ranking Iraqi official said that the country's security agencies had uncovered a secret weapons deal between the autonomous Kurdistan region and an unnamed foreign country.
The news agency AFP quoted an unidentified official as saying that Iraqi security agencies had unveiled the secret deal, which included "anti-armour and anti-aircraft missiles and a large number of heavy weapons."
The official described the alleged purchase of weapons by the Kurdish government as a "breach of the law and the Iraqi constitution."
Although Barzani has said that the crisis in Iraq could be resolved if a new oil and gas law were passed and the Kurds were given a greater say in central government, analysts believe that the crisis may be reaching a critical point.
Efforts to break the impasse have faltered as Barzani has insisted on Al-Maliki's ousting as prime minister, calling him a "dictator." As a result, the crisis has been turning into a war of wills, in which Iraq's stability and unity hang in the balance.
The military stand-off over the crossing point with Syria has raised the political temperature further, and on Monday the leaders of key political parties in Kurdistan said the Kurds were ready to defend their "achievements".
The Iraqi media reported this week that the standoff had forced people to flee their homes in the disputed areas for fear of fighting.
According to media accounts, Peshmerga soldiers and Iraqi troops have been deployed less than a kilometer away from each other, and clashes are possible.
The Kurds have fought the central Iraqi government ever since Iraq was declared an independent state following World War I. A semi-autonomous federal region was established after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Kurds may now feel that the uprising against the Al-Assad regime in neighbouring Syria could extend Kurdish autonomy, and this may have emboldened them in efforts to turn Iraqi Kurdistan into a bastion of the Kurdish movement in the Middle East as a whole.
However, Al-Maliki and his supporters do not seem unduly worried by Barzani's rhetoric, possibly betting that the Kurdish leader may be raising the stakes but will not follow through on threats to secede from Iraq.
Kurdistan's secession, they believe, could set off a chain reaction in the region that would damage Kurdish prospects. As a result, they hope that Barzani will realise that the Kurds' best hope is to work in cooperation with Baghdad and accept this as a realistic and productive outcome.