When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his
plan last week to pull out all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by September 2010,
the news did not generate much enthusiasm among Iraqi Kurds.
A simple math operation reveals the reasons behind the Kurds' anxiety add
the withdrawal plan to the recent staggering victory of Iraqi Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki's supporters in the country's recent provincial elections.
Kurds are now counting on Obama's oft-repeated pledge for a "responsible"
withdrawal, hoping their interests will be preserved. But a review of statements
by Kurdish and U.S. officials reveals the two sides are mostly talking at cross
purposes when they speak of "responsibility."
Recently, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani gave his interpretation
of the term "responsible."
"I restate that the role of the United States should be to help resolve
the problems in Iraq such as Article 140, the oil law, and the law on the distribution
of its oil wealth," Barzani told reporters in the northern city of Irbil,
tallying the list of contentious issues between Kurds and Iraqi government.
Article 140 refers to a constitutional provision to settle the critical issue
of disputed territories between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs, including the gold-prize
contested city of Kirkuk, which is afloat on some of the world's largest oil
But for the U.S., "responsibility" appears to mean making sure Iraqi
security forces can take over the task of protecting the country against rebellious
forces once it leaves. To achieve that end, the U.S. is equipping and training
Iraqi security forces. But this is hardly reassuring to Kurds, many of whom
see a conflict with Baghdad forthcoming in some form in the future.
When asked whether the U.S. will act to resolve the problems between Iraqi
Arabs and Kurds before leaving the country, U.S. State Department spokesman
Robert Wood replied, "It's not really up to the United States to reassure
anyone," and Iraqis had to work out their differences through their "democracy."
But the balance of power in Baghdad is quickly tilting toward forces that
Kurds do not perceive as amenable. Just shortly before Obama officially declared
the U.S. withdrawal plan, the Kurds' number-one opponent in Baghdad, Maliki,
found himself in a boosted position as his coalition of the State of Law scored
a quite unexpected victory in nine of Iraq's 18 provinces, including Baghdad,
the country's most populous city, with a population of around six million.
With Kurds and Baghdad at odds over several crucial issues, Obama's withdrawal
plan would only further strengthen Maliki's position.
Disputes between the country's Kurds and central government go back to
the early days of the foundation of modern Iraq by British colonialism in 1920s.
At the heart of contention are large chunks of territory marking the separation
line between Kurdish and Arab Iraq.
Iraqi governments, most notably under Saddam Hussein, expelled tens of thousands
of Kurds and Turkmens from those areas and replaced them with Arab settlers.
While Kurds want to annex these areas to their autonomous region known as Kurdistan,
the vast majority of the country's Arab political parties vehemently oppose
such plans. Kurdish attempts to expand their federal region have sparked fierce
reactions in Baghdad.
Spearheading a growing trend in Iraqi politics to abort Kurdish efforts and
stalling the establishment of new autonomous regions is Shia Prime Minister
Maliki. He has called for further centralization of power in Baghdad, accusing
Kurds of going overboard with their demands.
Besides strengthening Maliki's position, the provincial elections delivered
a major blow to the Kurds' only powerful ally in Arab Iraq that advocates
federalism: the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, previously known to be the most
powerful Shia Arab party in the country.
With their power in Baghdad thought to be in decline, Kurdish leaders are
these days loudly beating their anti-Maliki drum to draw international attention
to their problems with the rest of Iraq. PM Barzani told the Associated Press
last month that he thinks Maliki is seeking a "confrontation" with
Kurdish officials have even reportedly called on Obama to appoint a special
envoy to resolve their long-standing problems with Iraqi Arabs.
One Kurdish official took it even further, telling the Associated Press that
Maliki was a "second Saddam." The alleged statement by Kamal Kirkuki,
Kurdish parliament deputy speaker, was so ill-calculated that he had to issue
a statement denying that he ever gave an interview to the AP.
As tensions appear to escalate, a consensus is taking shape among many analysts
that things are moving toward a possible flare-up point.
"The threat [of conflict] is real," Kirmanj Gundi, head of the Kurdish
National Congress (KNC) in North America, told IPS in a phone interview from
Nashville, Tenn., where the largest Kurdish community in North America resides.
"It's unfortunate that the Kurdish leadership became more vocal about
this only recently," Gundi said. KNC is a non-profit organization lobbying
for Kurdish interests in the U.S. and Canada.
But concerns about a possible outbreak of conflict between Kurds and the Iraqi
government have gone far beyond Kurdish circles.
"It is critical for the U.S. to start thinking about this now because
as we proceed with the disengagement, our influence will wane in Iraq,"
said Henry Barkey from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, of the
need for the U.S. to address existing problems between Kurds and the Iraqi
government before it leaves the war-torn country.
Barkey authored a report for the Washington-based think-tank on how to prevent
conflict over Kurdistan. "Therefore, we need to hit the iron when it is
hot. And so, it is very important to help and we haven't done this in the past,
to help look at some of these issues," Barkey said on the sidelines of
an event at Carnegie to discuss his report last month.
While Washington appears indifferent, at least in its official discourse,
to calls for helping forge a common understanding between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs,
tensions are continuing to build.
In an attempt to flex its muscles, the Iraqi government recently announced
it will not recognize the visas stamped by Kurdish government on the passports
of foreign visitors. It also tried to send an army division to take over security
tasks in Kirkuk but had to halt the plan for the time being as it met stiff
The coming two years from now until the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq
will be decisive in determining how the Kurds' relations with the central
government and the country's Arabs will turn out. But all signs are that
Iraq is far from a long-term stability.