The suicide bombing Sunday in the normally tranquil north of Iraq has brought new uncertainty five months before the United States is due to cede political power to Iraqis.
The bombing at the offices of two Kurdish groups allied closely to the United States spread shock waves through Kurdish areas.
In one attack a man apparently dressed as a cleric blew himself up during Eid-al-Adha celebrations at the offices of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Irbil, about 350 miles north of Baghdad.
A few kilometers away, a similar bombing rocked a festival reception hosted by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The twin suicide attacks killed more than 60 people, including senior members of the KDP. The KDP leader Massoud Barzani and PUK chief Jalal Talabani were not in Irbil at the time.
The former rivals have been coming together to push for a stronger Kurdish say in the future of Iraq. The two leaders said the attacks only increase their resolve to unite in the north.
This first major suicide bombing in Iraq was the deadliest attack since a car bomb killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and more than 100 others in Najaf Aug. 29 last year.
Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, blamed the attacks on the Ansar al-Islam, a radical group believed to be linked to al-Qaeda.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But if an Arab connection is found, it would increase tension between Arabs and Kurds.
Why now in the relatively calm north, and what next for Iraq?
The attacks came following reports that Kurd groups had helped the United States get Saddam Hussein. They come also at a time of ferment in the ‘Kurdish question’ that has been dogging the region for decades.
Kurds, about 15-20 percent of the Iraqi population of some 24 million, are the majority in the north. They allied themselves with the U.S.-led invasion coalition last year. They have been administering the area under protection of an air umbrella provided by U.S. and British forces since the 1991 Gulf war.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has praised theirs as “model” administration.
Before the United States pulls out, they want their gains formalized in a new Iraq. “Our gains are irreversible,” Iraqi Kurdish leader Necirvan Barzani told the Turkish Daily News. “We cannot return to a situation where we were several years ago.”
Kurd leaders have proposed an Arab-Kurd federation, with Shia Arabs ruling the south and Kurds the north.
“Kurds have the right to self-determination,” UK-based Kurdish leader Siamand Banna said Monday. He said the federation proposed by the Kurds would be “within a unified Iraq” and that the oil wealth of Kirkuk in the north would be shared with Arabs in the south.
There is opposition to such plans both within and outside Iraq.
Non-Kurdish people in the north oppose the Kurd proposal. These include Sunni Arabs pushed up north during Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” drive and Turkmen, a minority of Turkish stock. For Kirkuk city the Kurds are proposing a special administration with representation from all minorities.
If the United States carries the trump card, it has not made its position clear yet. During Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington last week, President George W. Bush and Powell said only that the unity of Iraq would be maintained, without elaborating.
Erdogan says the Kurdish proposal is “unhealthy” and is likely to destabilize the region. Turkey, Iran and Syria have their own Kurdish minorities and fear that an independent Kurdistan or an autonomous one within a loose Iraq federation may spark similar demands by Kurds elsewhere.
But Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Turkish television that any federation in Iraq would be based on geography, not ethnicity.
The remark by Wolfowitz is being interpreted as a sign that the US Administration sees Turkey again as a strategic Middle East partner more vital than its debt to Iraqi Kurds for their unflinching pro-U.S. stand.
Turkey had refused to join the invasion of Iraq, denying coalition forces a northern front against the forces of Saddam Hussein, and placing a 50-year U.S.-Turkish partnership in jeopardy. The coalition forces linked up with Iraqi Kurds in taking over the north.
Wolfowitz now says of U.S.-Turkish relations: “Our strategic partnership has changedàmilitary relations of course do exist but the new strategic partnership is not based on a military field but rather on democracy and politics.”
Turkish commentator Mehmet Ali Birand says Bush has a “greater Middle East project” and “at the heart of this project lies an objective to achieve transition to democracy in Middle Eastern countries. And precisely from this perspective, Turkey is now the new favorite of the Bush administration.”
Birand expects Turkey to be a role model and become active in a democratization process in the Middle East. That would give it a larger say in what happens in northern Iraq.