Iraq-Kurd deadlock seen to threaten unrest
Analysts warn tense faceoff betweens Iraqis and Kurds could inadvertently spark broader conflict.
By Mehdi Lebouachera - BAGHDAD
Kurdish demands to expand their autonomous region in northern Iraq to include the Kirkuk oil fields and other districts threaten to trigger armed conflict, diplomats and analysts warn.
Six years after the US-led invasion in which Kurdish rebel groups were key allies, their decades-old claims to historically Kurdish-inhabited areas remain unresolved by the new Iraqi government in which they hold both the presidency and a deputy premiership.
And opposition to the Kurdish demands remains as strong as ever, not only among the Sunni Arab minority that dominated Saddam Hussein's ousted regime but also among the Shiite majority community that leads the new government and among ethnic minorities such as the Turkmen.
As time drags on, Kurdish leaders have voiced mounting frustration at the impasse in their talks with Baghdad, sparking an increasingly heated war of words with Arab politicians.
"I think we are in a situation that neither side wants a war but, where there are serious tensions and people are extremely well armed, then something could easily happen," a senior Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Washington has been seeking to mediate in the negotiations between the Kurdish regional authorities and the central government in Baghdad but the talks have reached a standstill.
And there have been a growing number of incidents between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga militia, composed of former rebel fighters, which took control of many of the disputed areas during the 2003 invasion.
On May 8, there was a shootout at a checkpoint near the main northern city of Mosul when the provincial governor attempted to visit a nearby town under Kurdish control and was prevented from doing so by peshmerga militiamen.
"The tense faceoff could inadvertently spark broader conflict in the absence of swift and accurate communication and strong political leadership," a Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group, said in a report.
In the summer of last year, the Baghdad government sent thousands of troops from the national army into the disputed districts where they are now deployed alongside the peshmerga forces.
The central government said the move was vital to the fight against Al-Qaeda loyalists and for the protection of key oil infrastructure.
But the army deployments have created tensions, particularly in the most hotly disputed area, the oil hub of Kirkuk, where the army's 12th Division is commanded by General Abdel Amir al-Zaydi, who served in Saddam's armed forces, accused by the Kurds of genocide.
Determined not to concede any ground in their territorial claims, members of the Kurdish regional parliament in Arbil last month approved a new constitution for their autonomous region formalising their claims to Kirkuk and the other disputed areas.
"Kirkuk is Kurdish, like Arbil, Sulaimaniyah or Dohuk, and is part of Kurdistan," regional president Massud Barzani said on Tuesday. "All of the historical and geographical documents prove this."
Kurdish rebels went to war with the Baghdad government in the early 1970s rather than accept its offer of limited autonomy over Iraq's three most northern provinces but not Kirkuk.
However, Arab politicians accuse the Kurds of persisting in their claims to Kirkuk's oil fields in a bid to secure the resource base to break away.
"The Kurdish constitution makes us furious because it is the first step in a move towards secession," Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for the Shiite radical movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, said.
The senior Western diplomat said the dispute was especially difficult to resolve because of the "huge existential issue at stake."
"On the one hand, the Kurds talk about their own survival -- are the Arabs going to come back and do what they didn’t manage to do (under Saddam)? And as far as the rest of the country is concerned, are the Kurds going to prevent a viable Iraqi state," he said.
With US-backing, the United Nations has proposed a compromise solution in which Kirkuk would be given a special status with links to both the central government and the Kurdish regional authorities. But so far the proposal has failed to win much favour from either side.
Kurdish independent MP Mahmud Othman said the only way forward was to "create serious dialogue between Baghdad and Arbil."
"Both sides ... talk about talks but none of them take a real initiative to do it," he complained.