Widening divisions in Iraq
The Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Shia-led government have postponed their fight over disputed areas, but the divide is sharpening, writes Salah Nasrawi
The political divide in Iraq is widening as Kurdish leaders continue their criticism of Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki despite efforts to defuse tensions following a military stand-off along the frontier with the Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq.
The row underscores a bitter falling-out between the Kurds and the Shias whose political coalition has been in power since the removal of the Sunni-led regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.
Tensions between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq have risen after Al-Maliki formed a new military command covering disputed territories in September in order to address the deterioration in security in the areas, which have been the scene of terrorist attacks in recent months.
Last week, the Kurdish region sent reinforcements to these areas, where its troops are involved in a stand-off with the Iraqi army and security forces. Kurdish military commanders later said that their Peshmerga military forces were fully prepared to defend the region against any assault by government troops.
On Monday, senior military officials from both sides reached a preliminary agreement to pull back their forces to their “previous positions” and “reactivate joint security committees for coordination in the disputed areas.”
A statement from the office of Al-Maliki, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, said the two sides had agreed to “start pacifying the situation.”
The deal was brokered by Iraq’s parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi after talks with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani on Friday. Washington has also reportedly intervened to end the stand-off and ease tensions, with news agencies reporting that Monday’s meeting was attended by Lieutenant-General Robert Caslen, head of the US military mission in Baghdad.
The agreement was probably good enough to de-escalate the stand-off, but it has left open the future of the Dijla Operations Command that triggered the dispute over the areas the Kurdish region wants to incorporate over the strong objections of Baghdad.
These areas, larger in size than the three provinces of Kurdistan and including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, have been policed by Kurdish security forces since the US invaded Iraq.
Hours before the agreement was signed in Baghdad, Nechirvan Barzani, premier of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the Kurds would not accept any solution that placed Kurdish security forces in Kirkuk under the new command.
Other Kurdish leaders were even more sanguine, with Kurdish President Jalal Talabani reprimanding the commander of Iraq’s ground forces, General Ali Ghaidan, for sending troops to the disputed areas.
Kurdish news outlet Rudaw quoted a senior Kurdish official on Monday as saying that Talabani had threatened Ghaidan, also commander-in-chief of the Dijla Operations Command, to be put on trial if he did not withdraw the Iraqi troops from the disputed areas immediately.
Also on Monday, Barzani was quoted by Al-Jazeera.net as saying that Kurdistan would win any war with Baghdad, if one ever broke out. Al-Jazeera said that Barzani had also accused Al-Maliki of planning to invade Kurdistan.
“Al-Maliki’s expiry date has come, and it is impossible to work with him any longer,” Al-Jazeera.net reported. “He is procrastinating, outmaneuvering and violating all the agreements,” Barzani added. “He says something and then does the opposite.”
Another Kurdish leader said that the Peshmergas would “fight in defence of their gains and the experiment of the region of Kurdistan. The people of Kurdistan will never be subjected again to the mercy of dictatorship and chauvinism,” Braham Saleh told a gathering in Kurdistan on Monday.
The latest flare-up began last week when Iraqi troops clashed with Kurdish soldiers belonging to Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK) in Tuz Khurmato some 150km south of Erbil, the Kurdish provincial capital.
The clashes left one civilian dead and several wounded, including two PUK fighters and 13 Iraqi security men.
Following the skirmishes, Barzani urged Iraqi Kurds to be prepared for “any unwanted eventualities”. Soon afterwards, Kurdish troops and tanks were dispatched to the disputed areas.
Kurdish military officials said the reinforcements would hold their positions unless Iraqi forces made a move. Mahmoud Sankawi, a Peshmerga military commander, said his troops were prepared to confront those he described as “occupying forces”.
The reinforcements and the rhetoric prompted Al-Maliki’s office to warn the Peshmergas “not to change their positions or approach the [federal] armed forces.”
The Iraqi army and the Peshmergas have previously come close to military confrontation, only to pull back after reaching an understanding through intermediaries.
In August, Washington intervened to help end a stand-off between Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces that were on the verge of a confrontation over policing the border with Syria.
The Kurds charge that the Dijla Operations Command is a threat to them and an attempt by Al-Maliki to seize control of the disputed territories.
For his part, Al-Maliki says the command is necessary to keep law and order in three of Iraq’s most volatile provinces, Diyala, Kirkuk and Salaheddin, which border Kurdistan.
However, the conflict illustrates how far relations between the old allies have deteriorated, testing Iraq’s federal union nearly a year after the US withdrawal.
Relations between the country’s Kurds and Shias have also worsened over other long-running disputes. Tensions rose after Al-Maliki started showing signs of wanting to expand his power base, and a row erupted in December after Iraqi Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi fled Baghdad for the autonomous Kurdish region, in order to avoid prosecution at the hands of the Shia-led central government on charges of terrorism and running death squads.
Iraqi Kurdistan has signed oil deals with major multinational companies that the Baghdad authorities have described as illegal, and trouble seems to be brewing again about Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories”.
Earlier this year, Barzani described Al-Maliki as a “dictator” and demanded that he be removed from power. Shia leaders have also sparred aggressively with Barzani, with one of Al-Maliki’s closest aides accusing the Kurdish leader of being a “a real danger” to Iraq.
Yassin Majid also said that Barzani “wants Erbil to hold a political role at the expense of Baghdad”.
On Saturday, Barzani turned down an invitation from Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr to meet with Al-Maliki to discuss the situation. In a statement posted on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s website, Barzani’s spokesman said he had refused because the matter was not personal, but rather a result of Al-Maliki’s “constant lack of commitment to the constitution”.
The political crisis and military stand-off have thrust the Kurdish-Shia alliance into the light of the day and in doing so has deeply unsettled much of Iraq. If the conflict is not handled carefully, there is the potential for clashes between the military forces under the two’s command.
“The Kurdish-Shia alliance is a lie. There was such an alliance during the opposition against Saddam, but it ended with the downfall of his regime,” said Sami Al-Askari, a senior member of Al-Maliki’s Daawa Party.