In early July 2009 the International Crisis Group issued its latest report on Iraq covering the simmering Baghdad-Kurdish dispute entitled “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line.” This has been one of the biggest problems in Iraq over the last two years, and has replaced the sectarian war as the major dividing line in the country. The U.S. is especially worried that it might blow up and lead to new violence as the administration is trying to draw down forces. Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, have all talked recently about this issue needing to be resolved. There may not be enough of a commitment on the part of Washington, Baghdad, and Kurdistan however to fix this problem anytime soon.
The split between the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) began in the summer of 2008. Previous to that Baghdad was relatively weak, especially in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion. That allowed the Kurds to win a number of large concessions to protect their autonomy, while their peshmerga forces swept south into areas they claimed to be historically Kurdish. By 2008 however, Maliki and the central government were stronger, and the Prime Minister began trying to assert federal authority and limit the Kurds to Kurdistan. This led to a number of confrontations, some of which are still playing out today. In August 2008 Maliki confronted the Kurds in the disputed district of Khanaqin in Diyala province. That same month the Prime Minister began talking about the need for a strong central government, that the constitution should be changed, that ethnosectarian quotas should be done away with, that there was no need to find consensus on every law between the different groups in the country, and that majority rule should replace it. In September 2008 Maliki followed that up by moving the 12th Iraqi Army Division into Tamim, home of Kirkuk. These were all steps meant to improve Maliki’s image as a nationalist leader before the 2009 provincial elections. He could very use the same tactics in the run-up to the 2010 parliamentary vote.
As would be expected, Maliki’s actions set off alarm bells in Kurdistan. The Kurdish leadership began condemning the Prime Minister, and claiming he was acting like the new dictator of Iraq. The Kurds were also becoming increasingly frustrated that nothing was being done about Kirkuk, and began holding up major legislation in parliament as a result. The Kurds even flirted with having a no confidence vote against Maliki in December 2008, but a lack of a successor ended the idea. By 2009 then, the two sides had hardened their positions, and neither seemed willing to back down.
The Crisis Group points to five on-going issues that are contributing to the conflict between Baghdad and the KRG. First is Kirkuk, which remains in political limbo as none of the parties can agree upon how to resolves its future or hold elections there. Second is the Green Line, the former border between Iraq and Kurdistan established in 1991. That line disappeared after 2003 when the peshmerga moved south into the disputed areas. Even though the constitution says they should not be there, the Kurds claim that part of the constitution should be revised. Third is the United Nations’ attempt to mediate the disputed areas. In April 2009 the U.N. presented its findings on the territories, and in mid-June the first meeting was held to work out the details, but shortly afterwards the Kurds passed a draft of a regional constitution, which laid claim to Kirkuk and other the other areas the Kurds consider theirs. Fourth, is the increasing confrontation between the peshmerga and Iraqi security forces. This began in Khanaqin in August 2008, spread to Tamim, and then Ninewa. The U.S. has increased its presence in the north to try to mediate, and set up a joint committee of Kurdish and Iraqi forces in Kirkuk, but has been unsuccessful in creating similar groups in the rest of the conflicted areas. The Kurds and Baghdad are both apprehensive about what will happen after the U.S. withdrawal, and are thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios of a possible armed confrontation. Last is the control of Iraq’s oil and natural gas. This involves the constitution and who has the authority to issue contracts, Baghdad or Kurdistan. The two sides have held up work on fields in disputed areas, and even when there is an apparent break through like the recent okay for the Kurds to export some of their oil, there are major hindrances as well. The Kurds are looking for major oil companies to move into the region, and create stronger ties with Turkey and the European Union to pressure Baghdad into allowing the KRG to follow its own, autonomous resource development plan.
The International Crisis Group, the United Nations, and the U.S. all say that this is the major divide in Iraq today. The problem is that the dispute involves so many different issues, federalism, the constitution, the security forces, the disputed territories, and natural resources, that any negotiations will be long and difficult. The Crisis Group calls for a grand bargain between the two sides that would include all of these issues. In October 2008 they proposed just such a deal for Kirkuk, but there were so many steps that it seemed impossible to implement. There is also the added issue that this is an election year for Iraq with parliamentary elections due in January 2010, which leads politicians to harden their stances rather than seek compromise. U.S. influence is also weakening as Maliki is limiting their freedom of operation under the Status of Forces Agreement, and U.S. troops are set to withdraw in the coming months. All of these factors do not point to a breakthrough in this dispute. Unless the Americans make a major push to put all of these sides in a room together to talk out their differences, it seems like the Baghdad-KRG dispute could last for years. Despite recent trips and comments by leading administration officials, there does not appear to be this level of commitment by the White House. Instead they seem to be working at the local level to try to stop the peshmerga and Iraqi Army from shooting at each other, while standing behind the United Nations’ talk at the national level, rather than being in the forefront and being the initiator. Perhaps only Maliki being replaced as Prime Minister could change things in the short-term, and this will definitely be a goal of the Kurds after the 2010 elections.
International Crisis Group, “Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line,” 7/8/09
- “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq And The Kurds,” 10/28/08
Khalil, Lydia, “Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?” Brookings Institution, June 2009
Kurdistan Regional Government, “Full Text of the KRG Response to Iraqi Prime Minister’s Accusations,” 12/1/08
Mahmoud, Amer, “controversy over Kurdish constitution,” Niqash, 7/6/09
Malazada, Hemin, “kurds dismiss talk of centralization,” Niqash, 11/24/08
Raghavan, Sudarsan, “Deaths of Iraqis in July Lower Than in May, June,” Washington Post, 8/2/08
Reuters, “Shi’ite Maliki calls for majority rule in Iraq,” 5/15/09