Iraqi Kurds dreading US troop withdrawal
By Mohammed A Salih
COLUMBIA, Missouri - When United States President Barack Obama announced his
plan last week to pull out all US combat troops from Iraq by September 2010,
the news did not generate much enthusiasm among Iraqi Kurds.
Simple math reveals the reasons behind the Kurds' anxiety - add the withdrawal
plan to the recent staggering victory of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri 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 US officials reveals the
two sides are mostly talking at cross purposes when they speak of
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 the Iraqi
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 US, "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 US 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 US will act to resolve the problems between Iraqi Arabs
and Kurds before leaving the country, US State Department spokesman Robert Wood
replied: "It's not really up to the United States to reassure anyone," and that
Iraqis had to work out their differences through their "democracy".
But the balance of power in Baghdad is quickly tilting toward forces which
Kurds do not perceive as amenable. Just shortly before Obama officially
declared the US 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 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 the
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 Turkomans 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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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. Barzani told the Associated Press last
month that he thinks Maliki is seeking a "confrontation" with the Kurds.
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
al-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.
"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,
Tennessee, 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 US 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 US 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
US 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 the 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 Kurdish opposition.
The coming two years - from now until the withdrawal of US 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 suggest that
Iraq is far from long-term stability.