Arab, Kurd rift evident as election day nears
January 31, 2009
KHANIQIN, Iraq — As Arab Iraqi generals and Kurdish Peshmerga leaders finished tense closed-door negotiations about who will police this dusty, disputed corner of Diyala province during upcoming elections, a Kurdish fighter guarding the door dropped any pretense of diplomacy.
"I want to be honest with you. We don’t need [expletive] Arab guys over here," Peshmerga Sgt. Abbas Akram said.
The meeting ended three weeks of grinding between leaders of the two armies, both of which say their soldiers must be in northeastern Diyala province — as well as parts of two other provinces — to protect their people from intimidation and violence.
Sipping cups of chai following the meeting, Kurdish and Arab military leaders were careful to say they have worked out their differences, but Iraqi soldiers, citizens, and outside analysts say violence, or even civil war, is a distinct possibility between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq.
Deep divisionsIraq’s Kurdish semi-autonomous area comprises the three northernmost provinces, Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, and is administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The government operates outside the control of the central government and, much to Baghdad’s chagrin, has even negotiated its own oil contracts.
The so-called "Green Line" cuts through a swath of northern Iraq, including Mosul, Kirkuk and into northeast Diyala province. It’s a moving target, but the land included in the Green Line is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.
Kirkuk, which holds a sizable chunk of Iraq’s oil reserves, is thought of by many Kurds as their capital. The competing claims are complicated by Saddam Hussein’s "Arabization" campaign, during which he flooded certain areas with Arabs and evicted Kurds.
A long-planned referendum mandated in Iraq’s constitution is supposed to settle the question of who controls the disputed areas, but the two sides have been unable to decide on the rules of a census to figure out who legally lives in the areas (and thereby who is eligible to vote there), and the vote is in limbo. Because of that, residents of Kirkuk province (also known in Arabic as Tamim) will not vote in the Jan. 31 provincial elections.
"Both (groups) care deeply about these issues of territory; both also see standing firm and resolute as an important way to show their seriousness and consolidate their power and influence," said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert and author of the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index. "I am afraid I consider these issues about the most incendiary that there are in current Iraq."
Religiously motivated bloodshed between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority has gained the most notoriety in Iraq. But Iraqi Kurds have been in revolt against Iraq’s central government for decades.
A common refrain among U.S. military leaders and Iraqi civilians is that ethnic tensions are much higher in political circles than on the ground, and there is some truth to that. In the bustling markets of Kirkuk and Khaniqin, Kurds and Arabs gather together around hookah bars and tea shops. Mixed neighborhoods are more common than along the strictly segregated Shiite-Sunni fault lines in Baghdad.
Some residents, though, are quietly fearful of being targeted for their ethnicity, and worry there will be civil war if U.S. troops pull out of Iraq.
Hussein Adnan, an Arab, said his family was chased by the Peshmerga from Khaniqin, the largest city in northeastern Diyala. He now lives in Sala el Ibrahim, a collection of mud and straw huts outside the city.
The Kurdish forces coming to Diyala province make him nervous and he is happy the Iraqi army will be there as a counterbalance.
"We don’t have any problems with Kurdistan, but we need security for all Iraqis," he said.
Playing refereePeshmerga fighters come and go from Khaniqin and several surrounding towns claimed by both the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraq’s central government. The legality of the movement is questionable: the Peshmerga are recognized as part of the Iraqi security forces but they are tasked with guarding Kurdistan.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which has formed a coalition with Kurdish parties, often tolerates the incursions to avoid fighting between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.
The Green Line tensions put U.S. forces in the uncomfortable position of being between Kurds — long their staunchest allies — and the majority Arabs who control the country.
"The U.S. Army is like a coach between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga," said Peshmerga 1st Lt. Kawa Mohammad.
Referee might be a more apt term.
"We’re going to be in the middle of them, making sure they get along and don’t kill each other," said Capt. Gabriel Austin.
While U.S. forces are consciously trying to stay in the background in most of Iraq during Saturday’s election, they will be quite visible in much of the disputed regions.
In northeast Diyala, they will be keeping the peace at checkpoints manned by even numbers of Kurdish and Arab forces, an arrangement hammered out in the Khaniqin meetings. The 50-50 checkpoints had to be approved by both the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments and similar arrangements are planned for Kirkuk and Mosul.
Austin says brokering agreement between the Arabs and Kurds is a balancing act.
"It puts us in the position of [having to be] very subjective and very honest," he said. "We have to always maintain our neutrality."
When to leave?Coalition troops in Iraq are increasingly playing the role of peacekeeper, crucial in solidifying security and stability gains in the wake of the country’s sectarian civil war, said Dr. Steven Biddle, senior fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"If we continue to play this role it has very useful effects in reducing the odds that, for example, Kurdish-Arab tensions over Kirkuk explode into violence," he said. "If we stop playing this role — if, for example, we withdraw too fast — then the risk of violence returning to Iraq, whether in Kurdistan or elsewhere, is very high."
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mike Kasales, who brokered the election meetings between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga, said he doesn’t see the two armies going to war. But, he said, resolution of who controls the disputed territories is key.
"I think eventually they’ll get over it," he said.
How long the U.S. is willing to keep a sizable force in Iraq is also on the minds of many Iraqis and remains an open question with President Barack Obama mulling how quickly he will pull U.S. troops out of the country.
Almost every Iraqi interviewed for this story had the same answer when asked what would happen between the Iraqi army and Peshmerga without U.S. troop presence: "I’m sure that there would be fighting," said Iraqi army Staff Sgt. Wasam Abdul Karim.
United under two flags?Many Kurdish leaders are quick to say that all Iraqis are brothers, but Kurds — ethnically, linguistically and culturally distinct from Iraq’s majority Arabs — have long yearned for complete independence and many consider themselves Kurdish first and Iraqi a distant second, if at all. A genocidal campaign by Saddam Hussein that resulted in almost 200,000 Kurdish deaths only deepened Kurdish mistrust of Iraqi Arabs.
Residents of Kurdistan prospered and grew accustomed to self-government before the war as the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone for the north of Iraq, effectively stopping Saddam Hussein’s forces at the southern border of Kurdistan. Today the region has been largely free of the violence that has plagued the rest of the country and a tourism campaign touts Kurdistan as "The Other Iraq."
Arabs driving to Kurdistan these days can expect a thorough search of their cars as their Kurdish countrymen are waved by, a fact mentioned with annoyance by some Arabs in border areas. The red, white and black Iraqi flag is almost nonexistent in Kurdistan, replaced by the red, white and green Kurdish flag, the only one flying at the Kurdistan Regional Government building in Irbil.
O’Hanlon said violence between the Peshmerga and Iraqi army is likely in the near term and could speed the process of Kurdish secession from Iraq — a prospect the U.S. has been keen to avoid given the potential for a regional conflagration it could create.
"Civil conflict is a distinct possibility," he said. "Actual civil war is less a threat, though hard to discount entirely. But if you are in the middle of the fighting it may be relatively hard to tell the difference."