In the Spring 2009 edition of the journal Middle East Policy, Professors Gareth Stansfield and Liam Anderson in their article “Kurds in Iraq: the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil,” argue that the growing conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could bring down the government, and possibly lead to the break-up of Iraq. Many commentators have pointed out the seriousness of this issue, but still think that the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is more important. Stansfield and Anderson believe that no other problem is as central to the future of Iraq. The oil law, the constitution, Kirkuk and other disputed territories, and federalism are all tied to the differences between the central government and Kurdistan. The relations between the two sides has only grown worse since 2008 as both have become distrustful of the others’ intentions. That leaves little room for compromise, and increases the chance for violence.
Many western views of Iraq are based upon past experiences, which makes analysis of newer ones sometimes difficult. For example, many believe that reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites is the most important issue due to the sectarian war of 2006-2007. If that’s not resolved many believe that Iraq will fall back into civil war. Iraqi nationalism is also making a comeback, which some hope will unify the country and balance outside influences like Iran’s. Commentators do note the conflict between Baghdad and Kurdistan, but think its secondary to sectarianism. They also think that because Turkey and Iran are opposed to Kurdish independence, that it will never happen. Stansfield and Anderson counter that no other issue as important as this one.
After the 2005 provincial and parliamentary elections the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) emerged as the dominant forces in Iraqi politics. The two had been allies since the Iran-Iraq War when both joined with Iran to fight against Saddam Hussein. The U.S. also played a role, supporting the Kurds after the Gulf War, and selecting the SIIC as their main Shiite partner after the 2003 invasion. Together the SIIC and Kurdish parties became the backbone of the Ibrahim al-Jaafari premiership. They were also the main authors of the 2005 constitution, which included federalism, an issue dear to both, and Article 140 that created a process to annex Kirkuk. Later they helped put Nouri al-Maliki in power.
Maliki was considered weak and ineffectual at first, but after the Surge took care of his main rivals, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency, and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, the state was strengthened, and the Prime Minister began flexing his muscle in 2008. In the process he began moving away from the SIIC, KDP and PUK to assert his independence. He has now fashioned himself as an Iraqi nationalist that wants to stop the Kurds from annexing the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, and amend the constitution to strengthen the central government. Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, and independent Shiites have supported Maliki’s efforts. This has led to increasing tensions with the Kurds, who feel threatened by Maliki’s actions.
The first real confrontation between Baghdad and Kurdistan occurred in the summer of 2008. In July Maliki launched Operation Promise of Good in Diyala. It was supposed to target insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, but quickly turned into a political move by the Prime Minister. In August 2008 he sent the Iraqi Army into the Khanaqin district in northern Diyala. That area had been under Kurdish control since March 2003, and was home to about 4,000 peshmerga. Kurdistan considered it a disputed territory, which they wished to annex. On August 10, the Iraqi Army told the peshmerga they had 24 hours to leave the area, and a week later began forcing out Kurdish parties from government owned buildings. Finally, on September 27 Iraqi police and peshmerga got into a shoot out in the town of Jalawlaa. Things seemed headed for a military confrontation until KRG President Massoud Barzani flew to Baghdad to hold talks with Maliki. With the assistance of the Americans they came up with a deal where the peshmerga and Iraqi security forces would withdraw from the town of Khanaqin, turning over duties there to the local police, while the Iraqi Army would take up patrolling the Arab areas to the south, and the peshmerga the Kurdish areas of the north.
This was the opening shot in changing the dynamic between Baghdad and Kurdistan. After Khanaqin, Maliki went on to confront the Kurds across the disputed territories that stretch from Diyala to Ninewa, to Tamim to Salahaddin. In Mosul, Maliki ordered the Interior Ministry to take over responsibility for security from the peshmerga in November 2008, and began reaching out to the Arab population by offering them reconstruction money. He also set up tribal support councils across all four provinces, and began transferring predominately Kurdish units and Kurdish officers out, and replacing them with Arab ones. This was not only a way to push the Kurds, but for Maliki to build up his own independent power base and armed supporters independent of both the government and the SIIC and Kurds.
The major disputed territory of course is Tamim province, home of Kirkuk. The Kurds claim that Kirkuk is historically theirs, and was Turkified under the Ottomans. When Iraq gained independence the Arab governments, and especially Saddam went on to Arabize the area. Since 2003 the Kurdish leadership has promised their constituency that they would annex the area. During the U.S. invasion they occupied Kirkuk, and then handed it over to the Americans when local Arabs and Turkmen complained about their presence. In 2004 they set up a process of normalization, a census, and then a referendum on the future of Kirkuk in Article 58 of the Transitional Administration Law created by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Then the Kurds had the same measures included in the 2005 constitution in Article 140. The Kurds claim this was a huge sacrifice for them because they could have just kept Kirkuk after 2003. Instead they have tried to work within Iraq’s new political system to legally annex it. The referendum on Kirkuk was supposed to happen by December 31, 2007, but didn’t. It was then extended until June 2008 but with nothing done again. Now the United Nations is supposed to handle Tamim’s future.
The Kurds say the solution to Kirkuk is for Article 140 to be implemented, but other groups in the province would not be happy with that. If there were a referendum, Kirkuk would assuredly be annexed. The problem is that Arabs and Turkmen there would object. They favor equal power sharing amongst the three main groups in the provincial council, and making Tamim an autonomous region. They have become increasingly angered by the Kurds’ expansionist ideas, and treatment by the Kurdish peshmerga and security service the asayesh. Rather than gaining friends to support their aims, the Kurds have created enemies with their policies in the province.
Maliki has inserted himself into this process as well. He has come to the side of the Arabs and Turkmen to frustrate the Kurds’ aspirations for Kirkuk. Like the other disputed areas, the Prime Minister began setting up tribal support councils and Sons of Iraq units in Tamim. This especially angered the Kurds because the councils included many Arab tribes that had fought alongside Saddam’s troops during the Anfal campaign in the 1980s where the government tried to ethnically cleanse the Kurds from northern regions. To drive the point home even more, Maliki helped orchestrate a demonstration of Arabs in two of Tamim’s districts in November 2008 where they chanted an old Baathist slogan replacing Saddam’s name with Kirkuk, “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Kirkuk.” The result of Maliki’s actions has been to ignore Article 140.
This has increasingly frustrated the Kurdish leadership. The KRG has run an extensive public relations campaign in Kurdistan assuring their constituency that Kirkuk would be annexed, and to a lesser extent the other disputed areas. Beginning with Khanaqin, then the other disputed territories, and finally Kirkuk, the Kurds came to distrust Maliki. They openly compared him to Saddam, and said the Prime Minister could no longer be trusted since he wasn’t following the constitution and Article 140. At one meeting, President Barzani even told Maliki, “You smell like a dictator.” As a form of protest, the Kurds held up major legislation in parliament like the provincial election law, the oil law, and amending the constitution. The Kurds were eventually successful in making Maliki back off, but the relationship between Baghdad and Kurdistan, especially between the Prime Minister and President Barzani were ruined in the process. By December 2008, ties between the two sides were at an all time low.
The other major conflict is over politics. Beginning in 2008 Maliki began calling for revisions to the constitution that would strengthen the central government vis a vis the provinces and the KRG. He claims that the constitution reflects the sectarian divide and instability of 2003-2005, and should therefore be amended to reflect the new status quo in Iraq. Maliki would especially like to curtail the Kurds’ oil policy, where they have passed their own law and signed over 20 independent contracts. For the Kurds’ part, they and their allies the Supreme Council were able to dominate the drafting process, and include provisions in it to ensure federalism and Article 140. They claim that this was a major sacrifice because they agreed to a legal framework to annex Kirkuk, rather than take it by force, and shows that they wish to remain part of Iraq in a federal system.
It seems unlikely that Maliki and the Kurds will be able to reconcile on any of these issues. The Prime Minister has pushed and shoved the Kurds over the disputed territories, and allied himself with many of the anti-Kurdish forces in the north, including ones that evoke a dark memory for the Kurds. This has allowed Maliki to create an independent base as well that he used well in the provincial elections. He is also challenging the Kurds’ autonomy by calling for amending the constitution. It’s believed that the 2010 parliamentary elections will only strengthen the Prime Minister more. The question then is what will happen next?
Many believe that Maliki has time on his side. Eventually the central government will have the power to force the Kurds out of the disputed areas for example. Stansfield and Anderson write that ironically, in fashioning himself as the nationalist leader of Iraq, calling for the unity and strength of his country, Maliki may actually lead to its break-up. The Kurds have repeatedly said that they want to stay part of Iraq, but if they are losing on every front, then what motivation will they have to remain part of the country? They will only take losing out on their aspirations and power for so long. Add to this the fact that the conflict could lead to violence. Iraqi forces and the peshmerga have faced off several times since Khanaqin. So far, nothing has come of it, but each time the two sides practice brinkmanship it increases the likelihood of something going wrong.
This is an obvious situation where the United States could play a mediating role. The U.S. has tried to calm nerves in military situations, but on the political side there’s little evidence of much pressure to resolve this growing dispute. On Kirkuk for example, the Americans are now deferring to the United Nations, but they have no hope of bringing the various sides together without the U.S. The policy seems to consist of keeping a lid on possible flashpoints, while letting the Iraqis try to solve their own problems. If something is not done, this feud will only grow in intensity until it reaches the breaking point, and that could either lead to the fall of the Maliki government, or worse, the secession of Kurdistan from Iraq.
Aswat al-Iraq, “Kurdish official condemns Iraqi army raid on Peshmerga HQ,” 8/24/08
- “Military units should be under central govt. control,” 8/19/08
International Crisis Group, “Iraq After The Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy,” 4/30/08
- “Shiite Politics In Iraq: The Role Of The Supreme Council,” 11/15/07
Jakes, Lara, “Key UN report to suggest power-sharing plan in Iraq’s divided Kirkuk,” Associated Press, 3/29/09
Paley, Amit, “Strip of Iraq ‘on the Verge of Exploding,’” Washington Post, 9/13/08
Parker, Sam, “Guest Post: Behind the Curtain in Diyala,” Abu Muqawama Blog, 8/20/08
Peterson, Scott, “US referees Iraq’s troubled Kurdish-Arab fault line,” Christian Science Monitor, 10/21/08
Serwer, Daniel and Parker, Sam, “Maliki’s Iraq between Two Elections,” United States Institute of Peace, May 2009
Stansfield, Gareth Anderson, Liam, “Kurds in Iraq: the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2009