Chance of a Breakthrough With the Kurds?

A recent meeting between Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani appears to be a crucial step in lowering tensions in the country, but it has also prompted questions as to whether the two leaders can put an end to their differences.

The meeting came as the fever of presidential and parliamentary elections in Kurdistan subsided and at a time that the U.S. is actively pressuring both sides to return to the negotiation table.

It was the first time in a year that the two leaders held direct talks in the northern resort town of Dukan — with the apparent mediation of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

While the two leaders exchanged positive words in a largely conciliatory gesture and decided to continue high-level contacts, skeptics were hoping these would be genuine moves toward an eventual resolution of a range of disputes between the two sides.

"I hope this visit by PM Maliki to Kurdistan region will not be only an election propaganda and that the visit will lead to a resolution of differences between [Kurdistan] regional government and the central government," Dhafer al-Ani, the head of Tawafuq bloc — the largest Sunni Arab group in Iraqi Parliament — said in a statement.

In fact, with Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for January, some may see this as an attempt by Maliki to regain Kurds’ favor in order to retain his office after elections.

While the recent meeting marks a rapprochement between the two sides, there is no indication that it would necessarily lead to a resolution of differences. Both leaders will risk their popularity and possibly political careers if they would want to make significant compromises — without which a deal does not seem achievable.

A few recent developments appear to have prompted the meeting between Kurdish leaders and Maliki.

During his visit to Washington last month, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Maliki to show more flexibility toward other Iraqi groups in order to achieve national reconciliation. Three administration heavy weights — including Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen — traveled to Iraq in July to drive the point home to Maliki and Kurdish leaders that Washington was keen to see both sides resume dialogue.

But all had to wait until Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections ended.

Nationalistic rhetoric had surged during the campaign, especially as Barzani and Talabani’s joint ruling coalition was trying to gain more votes by highlighting "threats" facing Kurds from others. On more than one occasion, Barzani said he would make no compromise with Baghdad over Kurdish demands.

With a strong opposition born out of those elections, the question for many was whether Kurdish policy vis-à-vis Baghdad would undergo any significant changes. During recent Kurdish elections the joint ruling coalition of Barzani and Talabani won only around 58 percent of votes, according to initial results announced by the electoral commission of Iraq. The two other major opposition groups have won around 37 percent of the vote in what was a shock to the political establishment in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, Barzani himself was re-elected as Kurdish president, drawing nearly 70 percent of votes. But, opposition members have accused Barzani of not handling Kurd-Baghdad politics very well.

Barzani’s meeting with Maliki before final election results are announced indicates a willingness on the part of the Kurdish leader to keep the initiative in dealing with Baghdad in his hands — while not involving the future diverse parliament that much.

With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq scheduled by the end of 2011, many think Kurds do not have the advantage of time on their side. That comes as the national government is becoming more powerful day-by-day, at times at the expense of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

"KRG has to come to some sort of an agreement with Baghdad soon, because it is not strong enough to combat Baghdad in the long run," Michael Gunter, a professor of Political Science at Tennessee Tech University, told IPS.

"Who is going to look after Kurdish national interests in the long-run, and after the U.S. leaves the country," said Gunter who has written on the Kurdish situation for years.

Kurds have been the closest U.S. allies within the country since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the U.S. military has at several times intervened to prevent the breakout of violence between Kurdish and Iraqi army forces. The latest instance was when Iraqi army troops were heading to a Kurdish town called Makhmur, east of Mosul. As there was a serious chance of clashes, the U.S. military managed to defuse the tensions and convince the Iraqi units not to enter the town.

As tensions between the rural Kurds on one side, and the central government and Iraqi Arabs on the other side have increased in recent months, some in Washington and Baghdad have accused Kurds of adopting a maximalist and uncompromising approach. But many inside Kurdistan fiercely oppose any such notion.

Shaqfiq Qazzaz — a veteran of Kurdish politics — rejects any branding of Kurdish positions as "extravagant and extreme."

"Whenever Iraq is in trouble, it is Kurds who are asked to accommodate and compromise… They set redlines, but forget that Kurds have redlines of their own as well," Qazzaz, who was a minister in KRG until a few years ago, told IPS in a phone interview from Irbil, Iraq. "There is a certain extent to which Kurdish leaders can make compromise, otherwise they will be on the losing side and their people will not accept that."

KRG’s differences with the Baghdad government include the borders of Kurdistan, oil and gas exploration rights, the power of the KRG versus Baghdad, and the status of the Kurdish forces known as Peshmarga. At the heart of the disputes is the chronic issue of Kirkuk that has complicated Kurdish relations with almost all governments in Iraq since the country was established in 1920s.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.