Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Mosul: The New Battleground Between Maliki And The Kurds

Mosul is becoming the new flashpoint between the central government and the Kurds. As reported earlier, the government is considering a new military offensive there since the May one failed to stem the violence. The cause of the conflict in the city is the divide between Arabs and Kurds who are vying for control. The May operation was almost entirely military, with no real political reconciliation or economic reconstruction afterwards. This time Maliki is attempting to shape the environment beforehand, but instead of attempting to reconcile the two, he is trying to turn the Arabs to the government’s side, while pushing out the Kurds. This is just the latest example of the growing tension between Baghdad and Kurdistan that started during the summer. At the heart of the matter is the balance of power between the central authorities and the regional government.

Mosul is part of the divided northern province of Ninewa. It remains one of the most violent areas of the country because of the ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Kurds wish to annex five northern sections of the province that they consider part of a greater Kurdistan. The Kurds also control the provincial council because the Sunni Arabs boycotted the 2005 provincial elections.

Mosul is right on this ethnic fault line. For all but a brief period since the 2003 invasion, the Kurdish Peshmerga militia has been in control of most of the city. Many of these fighters have since been incorporated into the provincial police and army. Mosul itself is split between the largely western Arab section, and the eastern Kurdish one. As in the rest of Ninewa, the city’s Arabs are resentful of the Kurds’ position. That is why the insurgency remains strong there, as they portray themselves as the protector of the Sunni Arabs. That is also why despite two large offensives there in 2008, one led by the U.S, the other by Baghdad, the security situation in Mosul has changed little.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now focusing upon the city for a second time, but this time the Kurds, not the Arab insurgency is his target. The Prime Minister is trying to manipulate the security forces to lesson the hold the Kurds have over the city. First, Maliki sent in 3,000 National Police from Baghdad to take control of the western Arab section. His brother-in-law has also been appointed the new commander of the local 2nd Army Division that is responsible for the Kurdish eastern district. Maliki also tried to transfer 34 Kurdish officers out of the 2nd Division, but KRG President Massoud Barzani blocked him. An adviser to Maliki said the two sides were trying to mediate the issue, but he also said that the Kurdish officers were traitors, and that the Peshmerga were not authorized to operate outside of Kurdistan. For their part, a colonel and brigadier general from the 2nd Division said that they were loyal to Kurdistan first, giving fuel to Maliki’s desire to have them switched out of their unit.

Maliki is also courting the city’s Arabs to use them to counter the Kurds’ power. In October, Maliki sent his deputy, a Sunni Arab, to discuss a new reconstruction program in Mosul. The deputy met with local Arab leaders including a former general, who was appointed as an advisor to the development program, and the head of the Shammar tribe, promising them money in return for their support. Maliki also pledged to back a new Arab political party, Al Hadba, in the up coming provincial elections. Maliki said he wanted the former general that his deputy met with to become the governor of Ninewa, replacing the current Kurdish one.

Maliki has been attempting to assert the central government’s power over the country since his offensive in Basra in March 2008. Since then he has gone after the Sadrists, the insurgents, and now the Kurds. He has sent the security forces to the disputed Khanaqin district in Diyala, and tried to form Tribal Support Councils there and in Kirkuk, to challenge the Kurds’ authority. Mosul is just the newest episode. In each case, Maliki has pushed the Kurds to give up their de facto control of these areas, which they have had under their power since 2003. The Prime Minister believes that the Kurds should only have authority in Kurdistan, not disputed territories outside of it.

Map of Kurdish occupied areas outside of Kurdistan

The Kurds, on the other hand, have a vision of a greater Kurdistan. They have their eyes on annexing parts of Wasit, Diyala, Tamim, Salahaddin, and Ninewa provinces, where there are Kurdish populations. After the invasion, the Peshmerga moved into almost all of these areas to create a new status quo on the ground. Since then they have used legal and political means to achieve their goals. The 2004 Transitional Administration Law gave the Kurdish government control of these disputed areas in Tamim, Diyala, and Ninewa. The 2005 Constitution said that Kirkuk would be resolved as well by the end of 2007. So far, none of this has been achieved, much to the frustration of the Kurdish Regional Government. The International Crisis Group points out that the Kurds have been holding up major legislation such as an oil law, a revenue sharing act, and the original provincial election law because the Kirkuk issue has not been resolved. When it comes to Mosul, it could be a bargaining chip to gain the northern section of Ninewa, which the Kurds covet. The Kurds feel that if they allow Maliki to move his forces into Mosul and Khanaqin, he will do the same in the rest of Ninewa, and eventually in Kirkuk, their grand prize.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have two conflicting visions of Iraq. Maliki wants a strong central government that is able to assert its authority over all parts of the country. That includes the disputed territories. Barzani on the other hand, believes in regional autonomy, and expanding Kurdistan into Iraq’s northern provinces. The Kurds think that they have the legal right to do this under the constitution. To counter this, Maliki has been using the one tool that has proven effective for him, the security forces. He has also tried to branch out, by offering development money and political support to sway Mosul’s Arabs. This game of brinkmanship has largely remained peaceful, mostly because the Americans have stepped in when tensions seem to be on the verge of exploding. U.S. forces are drawing down however, and Maliki’s moves mean he is less likely to listen to them in the future. Whether this means things will eventually turn violent, or they will remain largely political as they have been is unknown. The situation however, points to the long road Iraq has to travel along before it can become a truly stable country.


Ali, Fadhil, “Iraqi Government Launches Operation to Expel al-Qaeda from Mosul,” Terrorism Focus, Jamestown Foundation, 5/20/08

Dagher, Sam, “Fractures in Iraq City as Kurds and Baghdad Vie,” New York Times, 10/28/08

International Crisis Group, “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq and the Kurds,” 10/28/08, “Iraqi NGO: Violence Slightly up in October,” 11/3/08

Rubin, Alissa, “Rejection of Oil Law and Move to Create Tribal Add to Tensions With Kurds,” New York Times, 10/28/08

Ryan, Missy, “Iraqis await resurrection of scarred Mosul,” Reuters, 10/28/08

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/08


AndrewSshi said...

Given the rising level of tension between Maliki et al and the KRG, is there any word on how the KRG feels about Baghdad's plans on purchasing F-16's and M1's?

Joel Wing said...

in early September the speaker of the Kurdish assembly said that countries that sold heavy weapons to Iraq had to make a pledge that they would not be used against the Kurds. That was part of a barrage of statements by Kurds against Baghdad because they were mad over the Khanaqin incident.

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