Part of Iraq’s new political dynamic is the increasing feud between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad. The dispute began when the constitutional article on the city of Kirkuk was never followed through with at the end of 2007. The future of the city has been put on hold indefinitely. In 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also began confronting the Kurds by moving troops into the Khanaqin district in Diyala, and forming Tribal Support Councils across northern Iraq. Now every month Kurdish officials attack the central government, and they respond in kind. The latest event happened when the Associated Press (AP) interviewed the Kurdish Prime Minister and deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament who claimed Maliki was dangerous, and that the argument over Kirkuk could lead to war.
The AP article was another example of the growing frustration the Kurds are feeling. The Kurdish officials began by complaining about the United States doing nothing about Kirkuk. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said that unless the Americans stepped in there could be war with Baghdad over the issue. The deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament added that Maliki was dangerous and becoming more autocratic. The speaker said that Maliki was acting like Saddam, something other Kurds have claimed before. Both were afraid this dispute with the central government could escalate after Maliki’s victories in the provincial elections.
As could be expected, these statements led to some heated responses. A member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance said the Kurds were being counterproductive. A member of Maliki’s Dawa Party tried to turn the tables by accusing the Kurds of trying to annex northern regions of the country. A State Department spokesman made the most cogent remark by stating that Iraqis needed to solve their problems using their own institutions rather than always turning to the U.S. A few days later, the Kurdish deputy speaker denied that he said anything about Maliki, and claimed that he had never even spoken to the Associated Press.
Every few weeks the Kurds have made similar statements. In the beginning of February 2009, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani warned Baghdad about moving the 12th Iraqi Army Division towards Kirkuk. At the end of January, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani gave a speech in Dohuk where he said that the government was using the security forces to create a dictatorship. In the second week of that month, President Barzani also gave an interview with the Los Angeles Times where he claimed that Maliki was becoming drunk with power, which was making him authoritarian and autocratic. Barzani warned that if things did not change the Kurds could declare independence. At the very beginning of the year, President Barzani released an open letter that said Iraqi Arabs were showing their prejudice against Kurds and stirring up trouble. He implied that this could lead to the same kind of persecution the Kurds faced under Saddam.
The warnings about Kirkuk and Maliki’s growing power have been the major themes of the Kurds’ attacks on Baghdad. The 2005 constitution included Article 140 that said there should be a census and referendum on the future of Kirkuk by the end of 2007. As reported before, this deadline was at first extended, and then in effect dropped. The United Nations is supposed to be dealing with the issue, but has made no headway. A special election committee hasn’t even started its work to set up a process to hold a vote there for the provincial council. This has caused immense frustration amongst KRG officials. The International Crisis Group argued that the Kurds have held up major legislation in the parliament as a result.
The Prime Minister also began directly confronting the Kurds in the disputed territories when he moved troops into the Khanaqin district of Diyala in the summer of 2008, and then formed Tribal Support Councils in Ninewa and Kirkuk’s Tamim province. This stoked fears in Kurdistan that Maliki was not only going to refuse to allow any resolution of Kirkuk, but block the Kurds’ desire to add a series of other areas in northern Iraq. The Kurds feel that any area that has a large Kurdish population or that they lay historical claim to should be annexed, while Maliki wants to contain them to their current borders of Dohuk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniya.
Neither side has shown any willingness to compromise or negotiate. At the end of 2008 five committees were created of the five ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the Dawa Party, and the Iraqi Islamic Party, to work out differences within the government. By December 2008 only two committees had done anything however, and those were on finances and natural resources. The more important ones on foreign policy, disputed territories, and the armed forces had gone nowhere. The lack of checks and balances in the Iraqi government has also meant the Kurds could do nothing about Article 140 being put on permanent hold, or Maliki organizing tribes. The only thing they could do is try to organize a no confidence vote in parliament and bring down Maliki’s government. This has been a hotly debated issue in recent months, but nothing has happened.
At the heart of the matter is that the Kurds and Maliki have diametrically opposed views of how to run the country. As the recent provincial election showed, those parties like Maliki’s that advocated Iraqi nationalism, and a strong central government did the best. The Kurds on the other hand want decentralization, and more autonomy. Iraqi nationalism has also been increasingly fashioned as being anti-Kurdish, opposed to giving Kurds more freedom or to allow them to annex any territories. The Kurds were once in a strong position to fight off their opponents when they were allied with the Supreme Council that also wanted an autonomous Shiite region in the south. With no strong prime minister, the Kurds and SIIC could cut deals in parliament and create facts on the ground through their control of provincial councils and the local security forces to back their positions. Now that time is over as Maliki is asserting his control over all the security forces, and has used them and ad hoc organizations like the Tribal Support Councils to impose his will on the country.
With Prime Minister Maliki on the rise, the Kurds can only look forward to more frustration in achieving their goals of expanding and gaining more autonomy. So far the dispute has been kept in the political arena with the two sides trading verbal jabs at each other. During the summer of 2008 the two sides almost came to blows however, with only American intervention preventing it from escalating. The recent election has only made things worse from the Kurds’ perspective as they lost control of both Ninewa and Salahaddin, two things they could’ve used as trading chips in any negotiations. At the same time Maliki’s party did very well improving his position, while an anti-Kurdish party Al-Hadbaa won in Ninewa. Violence is also a threat in Iraq, but a more likely result will be the Kurds pushing for independence as Kurdish President Barzani has already warned of. If they can’t get what they want within the Iraqi system, the urge to secede will probably increase. This conflict will be one of the major issues of 2009.
Abbot, Sebastian, "Iraq's stability threatened by Arab-Kurdish rift," Associated Press, 2/8/09
Agence France Presse, “Maliki, Kurd Leader Trade Barbs Ahead of Polls,” 1/26/09
Ali, Ahmed and Knights, Michael, “Kirkuk: A Test for the International Community,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1/14/09
Alisha, “Iraqi Kurds Leader Blames Arabs for Growing Rift,” UAE Daily News, 1/2/09
Alsumaria, “Barzani warning of war spurs major reactions,” 2/17/09
Associated Press, “Iraqi Kurds want U.S. help to avoid war with Arabs,” 2/15/09
Aswat al-Iraq, “Kurdish Lawmaker Denies Reports on Describing Maliki As ‘new Saddam,’” 2/18/09
Hiltermann, Joost, “Iraq’s elections: winners, losers, and what’s next,” Global Democracy, 2/10/09
International Crisis Group, “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq And The Kurds,” 10/28/08
Kurdish Globe, “Negotiations Ongoing Between Erbil and Baghdad,” 12/4/08
Parker, Ned, “Kurdish leader sees authoritarian drift in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 1/11/09
Rubin, Alissa, “Ahead of Election, Iraq’s Leader Pushes for Gains,” New York Times, 1/26/09
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