Tensions between Kurds and the Iraqi government over disputed territory have heightened recently, raising fears that they might lead to ethnic clashes between Kurds and Arabs at a time when the war-torn country is slowly recovering from years of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Arabs.
Last month, the Iraqi army deployed units to areas under Kurdish control in volatile northern Diyala Province, as part of its "Operation Good Tidings" to expand government authority over the area.
The center of the controversial move was Khanaqin, 90 mi. northeast of Baghdad. It is a small, largely Kurdish town that has oil reserves and is close to the Iranian border. Kurdish peshmerga troops left their bases in the nearby districts of Jalawla, Saadiya, and Qara Tapa in northern Diyala after receiving warnings from the Iraqi army.
In a hasty face-saving move, Iraqi and Kurdish officials tentatively agreed that neither peshmerga nor Iraqi troops should go to the town. But to the Kurds’ advantage, the local predominantly Kurdish police force will be in charge of security.
Kurds see the deployment as a test of their power and believe if they withdraw from Khanaqin, the Iraqi army will chase them out of other strategic contested locations in and around oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq.
"The current problem is over borders, because they [the Iraqi government] believe the borders of Kurdistan should be where the former ousted regime [of President Saddam Hussein] decided on," said Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, in a meeting with Kurdish journalists on Sept. 28.
"From now on, if Iraq sends its forces to somewhere in disputed areas, then we will dispatch our forces to the same spot as well. If they send one brigade, we will send two," Barzani said.
His remarks raised the current tensions to a new level, signaling that Kurds will not shy away from fighting the army of the very government whose president is Kurdish, as well as some key ministers.
Last month, Sheikh Homam al-Hamudi, a Shia Arab who heads the Iraqi parliament’s foreign relations committee, warned Kurds on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that "any [Kurdish] peshmerga who violates the blue line will be chased out by the [Iraqi] security forces."
The blue line refers to the official border between areas under Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) jurisdiction and the rest of Iraq. KRG runs the three northern provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk and has no official jurisdiction over Khanaqin, Kirkuk, and Nineveh province, home to the city of Mosul.
In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds gained unprecedented power and recognition in the country’s politics and their relations with Baghdad went through an exceptional period of apparent friendship.
Kurds consider Khanaqin, Kirkuk, and towns around Mosul as part of their historic homeland. Under Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were expelled from those areas and replaced by Arab settlers from the central and southern parts of the country. Now Arabs charge Kurds with a reverse campaign. Ethnic claims of ownership among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens people of Turkish origin have turned those areas into potentially explosive flashpoints.
The recent developments marked the advent of a new era in Iraq’s postwar politics and a sign, as Kurdish media sometimes say, that the "honeymoon" between Kurds and the Iraqi government is over.
For the first time, the Shia-led government of Maliki is militarily challenging Kurds who are partners in his coalition government. Since the overthrow of Hussein, Shias and Kurds have given the appearance of a political alliance. When several Shia, Sunni, and secular groups withdrew from Maliki’s government in 2006, it was Kurds who propped up his cabinet by staying and backing him.
But as the security situation in the country has improved over the past year, Maliki’s confidence appears to have grown in parallel. That has meant that he now finds himself in a position to take on old friends, typical of Iraqi politics notorious for short-lived and often self-serving political alliances.
The recent moves by the Iraqi army sent shockwaves among Kurds, reviving images of the bitter history of their relations with various central governments in Baghdad. Kurds have been at war with all virtually governments since the establishment of Iraq in 1921 up to 2003.
The worst experience was with Hussein, who in 1980s conducted large-scale massacres of Kurds, killing tens of thousands. Last April, the Iraqi parliament unanimously recognized those massacres as "genocide."
"I think, unfortunately this was an alarm bell as far as we are concerned Baghdad again followed the practice that when it is weak, it keeps silent toward us, but as soon as it gets powerful, starts to threaten us," Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the KRG and Massoud’s nephew, told Voice of America last week. "We thought in the new Iraq, an Iraq that is rebuilt on a new basis, this issue is over."
In response to what many Iraqi Arabs see as Kurdish encroachment on the authority and powers of the central government, Maliki issued a clear warning, saying that Iraq needs a "strong central government."
"We do not want the central government, as some think, to become just a process of collecting and producing wealth," the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Hayat quoted Maliki as saying in mid-September.
Distrust between the two sides runs so deep that recently, as the news broke of Iraq’s plans to buy advanced military equipment like F-16 jets from the United States, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, Adnan Mufti, said that U.S. should insist on guarantees from the Iraqi government that it will not use those weapons against the civilian population as in the past.
Hussein frequently used the army to crush his political opponents, notably Shias and Kurds.
Arab parties charge that Kurds are getting a disproportionate share of the Iraqi budget 17 percent and that they are over-represented in the federal government institutions in Baghdad.
Observers believe Kurds’ position in Iraqi politics is weakening as sectarian Shia-Sunni violence has decreased and Arabs of both sects act more in unison on some key issues, especially those related to Kurds. Pressures from regional powers, especially Turkey, have also had an impact in undermining Kurdish influence in Iraq.
Last February, when the Turkish army launched an incursion into the remote mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan in search of Kurdish guerillas, the Iraqi government merely issued a few statements. And as the U.S. seeks to stabilize Iraq, it is pressuring Kurds to make concessions to Shia and Sunni Arabs.
All this means Kurdish leaders face tough times ahead, especially as major disputes between Baghdad and the KRG over oil, territory, and budgets remain unsettled.
Given the potential dangerous course that events in this regard may take, what has happened so far could be the calm before the real storm.