The other day, President Obama made a speech in which, among other things, he pledged that the U.S. would withdraw from Iraq on schedule. The question is: according to whose schedule? Because shortly after Obama spoke, the Iraqi government announced it wants to hold a referendum in January on whether U.S. forces should leave earlier than the 2011 deadline stipulated in the status of forces agreement signed last year by the Bush administration and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The move appeared to take Washington by surprise, and the timing could not be worse for the Obamaites and the future peace of the region – just as tensions between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad reach a crescendo over the disputed city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds have long chafed beneath the heel of the Iraqi government, under Saddam and now under Maliki. For all the years of the "no fly zone," enforced by the U.S., they were a de facto independent nation, and since the U.S. invasion they have jealously guarded that status, in spite of being formally considered a province (or, rather, three provinces) of Iraq. Today that jealousy is being further provoked by the desire of the Iraqi government to rein in the Kurds on an issue that has been kicked down the road until now.
There is considerable oil wealth [.pdf] in the region surrounding the northern city of Kirkuk, which has a special place in the hearts of Kurds. They consider it their Jerusalem and the natural capital of an independent Kurdish state. The city underwent an "Arabization" program during the years of Ba’athist rule, and, after the invasion, the city was kept out of the Kurdish region, its status left undecided so that the issue could be decided at a future time. Well, the future has arrived, so the two most volatile factors in politics (especially the Middle Eastern variety) – sentiment and money – are combining to produce an explosion that could send the whole country careening into chaos.
There have been several near confrontations between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga – militias maintained by the two main Kurdish political parties – and the U.S. is deploying its forces to the north to prevent just such a standoff. But not if the Iraqis can help it…
This push to get the Americans out is related to the upcoming Iraqi elections in more ways than one: yes, the parties are all vying with one another to appear more-anti-American-than-thou – with the exception of the Kurds – but there is more to it than that. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that a referendum must be held on the status of Kirkuk, which is not formally incorporated into Kurdistan but where Kurdish peshmerga are stationed in large numbers, and the timeline is very specific. It was supposed to have been held in December, 2007, but it wasn’t, for the simple reason that the central government in Baghdad is not prepared to give up Kirkuk and its oil quite so easily.
The Kurds, on the other hand, are equally insistent that the vote be held, and they are furthermore prepared to go to war over Kirkuk, thus the recent U.S. troop deployments in the area. The move is billed as a "joint operation" involving all three players – the Americans, the Iraqi military, and the peshmerga – but the Iraqis aren’t falling for it. The last thing they want is for the Americans to stand between them and Kurdistan. This fissure has been widening for a while, and it is about to split wide open – with plenty of bloodshed to follow. Whether or not the Americans are going to be caught in the crossfire remains to be seen, but the Iraqis are giving us an out. Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll have the smarts to take it.
The province of Nineveh is another flashpoint in the struggle between the Shi’ite regime and the Kurds. Recent bombings in the area are attributed by the U.S. military to al-Qaeda, but this seems a little too pat. After all, the principal parties to the dispute – the Kurds and the Shi’ites – each have reasons of their own for fomenting trouble, and there are other players, as well. Aside from the minority groups that live in the region and have been woefully oppressed by the Kurds – Syrians, Zoroastrians, Turkmens, and others – there is another player that almost never gets mentioned in news accounts: the Israelis.
Seymour Hersh has reported on the presence of the Israelis, who took up training the Kurdish militias and using the various Kurdish guerrilla groups to infiltrate Iranian and Syrian territory. Convinced that the U.S. was making a hash out of its occupation of Iraq, and unable to convince the Americans to close off the border with Iran, the Israelis decided, in the fall of 2003, to take matters into their own hands.
They poured money and covert operatives into Kurdistan, creating a de facto alliance with the Kurdish regional government: in the event of an Iraqi collapse into civil war, what they regarded as their legitimate interests would be secured. Whether the Israelis are working to sow discord, or, with the Americans, are trying to patch up the shaky federalist structure of the Iraqi state is a question that hardly requires much thought. Naturally the Israelis would much rather see an independent Kurdistan, or at least one that is effectively autonomous, rather than one dominated by a government in Baghdad that is rather too close to the Iranians.
Iraq is being used as a dress rehearsal for the coming showdown with Iran, with the Shi’ite parties who control the government in Tehran’s camp, and the Kurds and militant Sunni elements lining up behind the Americans and their Israeli allies. Yet it may be an overstatement to categorize the Israelis in that way, since tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv have ratcheted up considerably. The ascension of Obama to the U.S. presidency and the installation of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history have pushed the "special relationship" close to the breaking point.
Under these circumstances, the Israelis are likely to do anything – and the prediction of a Turkish diplomat, who told Hersh that Kirkuk may turn out to be "the Sarajevo of the Middle East," is looking likelier as time goes on.
All the players in this regional drama are psyched up for a major confrontation, the Kurds perhaps most of all. The two main Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – have dominated Kurdish politics for decades, and, in the wake of the "liberation," agreed to divide up the power and the spoils so as to present a united front when negotiating with Baghdad. However, their repressive rule, coupled with rampant corruption, has generated a popular resistance on the home front, which threatened their monopoly on power in the recent regional elections. One way to stamp out such unprecedented dissidence is to play the nationalist card – and the war card – and there is little doubt that, if and when push comes to shove, the Kurds will play it.
It is commonly asserted that the Iraq war merely succeeded in empowering the Iranians, because it unleashed the Shi’ite majority and enabled them to take power in Baghdad. While this is true in a general sense – the Iraqi and Iranian regimes enjoy good relations – it is usually overstated, with nationalistic tensions and cultural differences significantly underplayed. On the other hand, the really malevolent genie let out of its bottle by the Iraq war was and is a Kurdish one: nearly every one of Iraq’s neighbors harbors a considerable – and restive – Kurdish minority, and these groups are ready and (with assistance from their brothers over the border) able to rise up and declare their intention of creating "Greater Kurdistan" – a region that, if you look at their maps, extends from southern and central Turkey through Syria and the hinterlands of the Caucasus, to Iran in the east and all the way to Kuwait in the south. If and when the Kurds make their move for independence, this entire area could become a war zone in very short order.
So you thought the U.S. was going to be out of Iraq, free to concentrate all its resources on the conquest of Afghanistan and the pacification of the Pakistanis? You thought Iraq was over. Well, think again. There’s trouble ahead, and plenty of it.