Today, the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish peshmerga are facing off across the disputed areas of northern Iraq, while politicians in Baghdad and Irbil are in a heated war of words. The point of contention is the new Tigris Operations Command created by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The recent events are almost an exact replay of 2008 when the central government confronted the Kurdish parties in Diyala province. Both appeared aimed at shoring up the premier’s standing with the electorate before provincial elections. Regional President Massoud Barzani also benefited as he rallied the Kurdish parties behind him. On the outside these confrontations looked like they could escalate into open warfare, but they were more political theater than anything else.
|(New York Times)|
Diyala province in northeastern Iraq contains several disputed territories, including the Khanaqin district along the Iranian border. Kurdish forces occupied the area during the 2003 invasion, and they were later asked by the central government to help with security there. In 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki selected that district as the place to confront the Kurds. First, he started setting up Tribal Support Councils across the province. They were supposed to help out with security, but were actually a way for the premier to create patronage networks throughout Iraq. Kurdish politicians interpreted the councils in Diyala as a way to undermine their hold on the disputed territories before the 2009 provincial elections. The Kurdish mayor of Khanaqin for example, said that the councils were a threat, and a way for Maliki to assert his power in the district. In April, the 34th Peshmerga Brigade was told to vacate the district by the 5th Army Division who said it would take over responsibility for security, but it was rebuffed. Again, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) saw this as a provocative move by the prime minister. Then in July, Baghdad launched Operation Omens of Prosperity in Diyala, which was to focus upon insurgents. As part of it, the 1st Army Division moved into Khanaqin at the beginning of August. The unit demanded that the 34th Peshmerga Brigade vacate the area within 24 hours, but it refused. The soldiers then attempted to force out several Kurdish political parties and the peshmerga from their offices. This led to a tense standoff between the two sides with army forces standing on one side flying the Iraqi flag, and the peshmerga on the other flying the Kurdish flag. The next month, Iraqi police tried to arrest a Kurdish intelligence officer in the district, which led to an argument, and shots being fired, which killed a peshmerga. At the time, this growing escalation by Maliki against the Kurds in Diyala was seen as a dire threat to the status quo in the country. The Kurdish and Shiite ruling parties had long-standing alliances dating back to the Saddam times when they were both opposed to his dictatorship. Now the prime minister seemed to be threatening those ties by pushing the KRG over a small district. Many thought this could explode into open warfare between the central and regional government, and had far ranging affects throughout northern Iraq.
The incidents in Khanaqin spilled over into other provinces in the region. In Ninewa, the prime minister was accused of replacing Kurdish units with Arab ones, and attempting to transfer Kurdish officers out of an army division there. 200 Kurdish soldiers and a battalion commander in the province ended up deserting, and left for Irbil. A Kurdish army brigade in Diyala refused to take orders from Baghdad as well. Finally, the premier removed two leading Kurdish officials from the team that was negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States in August. Again, these were all seen as provocative moves by the Kurdish ruling parties. Many interpreted it as a mini-Arabization program by Maliki, which harkened back to the much more vicious and institutionalized Arabization campaign by Saddam when he forcibly uprooted Kurdish villagers from northern Iraq to be replaced by Arabs from other parts of the country.
This culminated in a war of words between Maliki and the KRG President Massoud Barzani. Kurdish officials began calling the prime minister the new Saddam. A Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) lawmaker in the Kurdish parliament told the press that Baathism was alive and well in Baghdad, and that it was trying to abrogate Article 140 of the Constitution that set out a process to determine the future of the disputed territories. (1) These verbal attacks went on for nearly a year after the Khanaqin incident at the beginning of August. It ended up having a lasting affect upon how Barzani’s KDP would see Maliki. From then on, it thought he could no longer be trusted. The feeling was that with the insurgency and militias receding in the country, the central government would repeat its long history of turning on the Kurds. This opinion played out all the way to the 2010 parliamentary elections when Barzani amongst other Iraqi politicians unsuccessfully tried to place limits upon Maliki’s power when putting together a new government.
The dispute in Diyala was eventually ended with help from the United States military, and direct talks between Irbil and Baghdad. President Barzani ended up travelling to Baghdad where he worked out a deal for Khanaqin to be placed under local police control instead of the Iraqi Army or peshmerga. The U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno also helped create joint U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish checkpoints throughout the disputed territories to get the two sides to work together on security. He also negotiated a ministerial committee to bring the top security officials from Baghdad and Irbil together. Those moves effectively diffused the tension, and the two sides went back to their normal business. It still raised fears that the situation could have gotten out of control, and some soldier or commander on the ground in Khanaqin could have made a bad decision that would have led to fighting between the army and peshmerga.
|Kurdish tanks parked outside of Kirkuk, Dec. 2012 (Reuters)|
Today, a very similar standoff is happening in the disputed areas. In July 2012, the Defense ministry announced the formation of the Tigris Operations Command. It would command both the army and police in Diyala, Tamim, and Salahaddin. By September, the Kurdish parties became increasingly critical of the new command, calling it illegal, provocative, and a threat to Article 140. In November, there was a shootout between the Iraqi army and police and a peshmerga unit in Tuz Kharmato in Salahaddin when there was an attempt to arrest a Kurdish businessman accused of smuggling oil. One person ended up dead, and ten were wounded. That led the central and regional governments to once again mobilize their forces and send them to the disputed territories. That same month, Barham Saleh of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said that Maliki wanted to take the Kurds back to Saddam’s times. In a December 2 addition of Azzaman, President Barzani stated that the KRG would not allow Maliki to moves his forces into the disputed areas, and called him a dictator. The next day, the Peshmerga Ministry accused Maliki of arming Arab tribes in Ninewa, Diyala, and Tamim. Once again, the U.S. military was also brought in to help negotiate between the two sides. The events in 2012 are very similar to those in 2008. The prime minister made a provocative military move, which the Kurds saw as a threat to their claim to the disputed areas. Like 2008, they have sent their forces to stare down the central government’s. Like the dispute in Diyala, Kurdish officials have started making comparisons between Maliki and Saddam, and like then, the U.S. military has been asked to be an honest broker. The politics of the two are comparable too.
Both the present and past confrontations come before provincial elections in Iraq. On Maliki’s side, he is playing upon Arab nationalism, and trying to portray himself as standing up against Kurdish expansionism. This plays well with some Sunnis in northern Iraq who feel threatened by the Kurds. The Arab bloc in Tamim for example, welcomed the Tigris Operations Command, saying that it would reduce the power of the peshmerga. A parliamentarian from the Iraqi National Movement also stood up for the command. This was exactly the same stance that the prime minister took in 2008. Then, he was changing his image from the weak and compromise premier that took power in 2006, to the strong nationalist leader who took on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad, and then the Kurds. Just like today, some Sunni parties came to Maliki’s side over the Khanaqin incident like when a lawmaker from the Iraqi Accordance Front demanded that the peshmerga withdraw from Diyala. The benefits of these standoffs have not been one sided. President Barzani has gained political points as well. In each case, he strengthened his image as the protector of Kurdish interests. Today, he has rallied the Kurdish press, opposition parties, and the PUK behind him. This was especially important, because the opposition and PUK had become increasingly critical of Barzani’s unilateral policies beforehand. In fact, despite the news reports of possible armed conflict, it seems like the true motivations behind both incidents is political gain before upcoming elections.
Khanaqin and the Tigris Operations Command are eerily similar. In 2008, Prime Minister Maliki decided to militarily challenge the Kurds in the disputed territories. This immediately led to the KRG to call out the peshmerga, and a tense situation ensued where armed forces stared at each other over open ground, and insults were tossed around in the press. This raised fears that the central and regional governments were on the verge of war. Almost the exact same series of events are now occurring over the Tigris Operations Command. The emphasis upon the threat of violence however, misses the more important political side. In both cases, Prime Minister Maliki and President Barzani have been trying to expand their constituencies by saying that they are standing up to the other. The hope is that this will result in votes in the next round of provincial balloting. The military side of things is just the show. Behind the scenes, these two leaders are playing the real game as they use the fears about each other to build up more support.
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