x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Talk of war as Kurdish tension increases

A simmering dispute between Arabs and Kurds re-emerges as a major cause for alarm in Iraq, with growing talk of war on both sides of the ethnic divide.

A simmering dispute between Arabs and Kurds, once pushed into the background by the vicious Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, has re-emerged as a major cause for alarm in Iraq, with growing talk of war on both sides of the ethnic divide. "We will defend our rights, no matter what the price, and if there is a war between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces, we will enter this fight on the side of the Iraqi army," said Sheikh Naif al Yawar, an Arab leader from the Shammari tribe in Balad Ruz, a town in Diyala province.

Balad Ruz, 80km north-east of Baghdad, lies close to Mandali and not far south of Khanaqin, towns with mixed populations made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen. Both have seen their share of violence since the 2003 US-led invasion and, crucially, both are claimed by the Kurds as part of their autonomous region, whose capital is Erbil, something the central Iraqi authorities in Baghdad dispute. A belt of similarly volatile contested zones runs along the Kurdish-Arab frontier, from the Syrian to the Iranian border, with mixed towns and villages all claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad.

"There are many areas that are part of Kurdistan but the Iraqi government wants to keep them," said Kosar Mohammad, a 31-year-old Iranian Kurd living in Erbil. "Of course we want to find a solution by political dialogue but, if you ask me, the Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] should move its armed forces into them, especially Kirkuk, and we should tell the others, 'if you don't want to live here with us, fine, you should leave our cities and our country'.

"If diplomacy doesn't work, we should be prepared to do what is necessary. I think the Kurdish people are ready for that." Tension between the Kurds, who have enjoyed de facto independence since 1991, and Iraq's majority Arabs has long been an issue. Saddam Hussein tried to cement control over key Kurdish areas by forcing Kurds to leave and moving Arabs in to replace them. In the aftermath of the American-led invasion, the Kurds gained the upper hand, moving their peshmerga militia forces into commanding positions in Mosul, Kirkuk and other areas previously controlled by Baghdad.

The Iraqi central authorities were in no position to contest the Kurdish expansion and, dependent on the Kurds politically, Iraq's ruling Shiites largely turned a blind eye to the issue. With the insurgency weakened - although still deadly, as Friday's multiple mosque bombings in Baghdad testify - and with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki in an increasingly strong position, the central government has turned its attention north. Since the end of June, the Arab-Kurdish dispute forced its way back to the top of the political agenda with the approval of a controversial draft constitution by the KRG.

The constitution contains nothing remarkably new and does not call for full Kurdish independence. It does, however, firmly spell out the Kurds' aspirations to take full control of areas they consider to be part of a Kurdish national homeland, including Kirkuk. The oil rich northern city has become a central point of contention between Erbil and Baghdad and has come to symbolise the competing aims of each authority. The Kurdish constitution insists that a referendum must be held over Kirkuk's future, with residents allowed to decide whether the city joins the Kurdish area or stays outside, under the umbrella of the central government. Such a referendum is enshrined in Article 140 of Iraq's national constitution and should already have been held. But, with the Kurds certain they have a majority of the population, it has been indefinitely delayed by Baghdad. Instead, the United Nations has been brought it to come up with possible compromise solutions for Kirkuk and other disputed zones.

Compromises are not going to be easy, however. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and re-elected as Iraqi Kurdistan's president last week, has taken a hard-line on the question of Kirkuk, promising to bring it under Kurdish control. The Americans, long allies of the Kurds, who welcomed them as liberators in stark contrast to most Iraqis, have become embroiled in the dispute.

The Kurdish draft constitution was due to be put to a referendum at the same time as the presidential and parliamentary elections on July 25th, until the US vice president Joe Biden personally stepped in and asked the Kurds to postpone it. Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, visited Erbil for talks with Mr Barzani this week in an attempt to prevent a dangerous confrontation with Baghdad after Gen Ray Odierno, the commanding US general in Iraq, said tension in the north was "the number one driver of instability" in Iraq.

There is little sign that either side is yet prepared to back down. Sherwan Haidary, a senior member of the Kurdish parliament and KDP, and deputy of the parliamentary committee that drew up the KRG's draft constitution, accused unsupportive officials in Baghdad of being "chauvinist". "Those who are against our constitution are against Kurdish interests and are against the existence of the Kurds," he said in an interview.

"We knew some people would be upset. I don't know if [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri] al Maliki is against our constitution, we just heard from Joe Biden that he didn't want a referendum. But everyone should know this: We can never hand over Kirkuk and we will always consider it to be part of the Kurdish region, and our rights are included in the Iraqi constitution." The Kurdish people have long dreamed of having an independent state. They were promised their own country by the allies after the First World War, only for the British and French to renege on their promise, splitting the Kurdish people between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Most Iraqi Kurds are presenting a united front on the issue of Kirkuk to Baghdad, maintaining that it must be put under Kurdish control. What differs is the strength of their rhetoric, and their willingness to talk of war. Hadi Ali, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Union's politburo, said it was inappropriate to talk of armed conflict. "We need all of the problems between Baghdad and the KRG to be solved through dialogue," he said. "Sometimes there is violence in Mosul, Kirkuk and Khanaqin. We can only say, there must be more discussion. But Article 140 should be implemented, we support that. We have to help all the people in Kirkuk - the Kurds, the Arabs, the Turkmen. We are all tired of violence."

At least one person was killed in a car bomb explosion in a Kirkuk market on Friday, the latest in a series of attacks to hit the city. There are, however, Kurds who do not want their areas to be brought under KRG control. Khoshnaw Mohammad, a 33-year-old father of two living in Khanaqin, said he was against the idea, cautioning it would shatter a fragile, unstable peace. "I think Arabs and Kurds should be able to live alongside one another in Iraq and I think annexation would be harmful to us here.

"Even if there is a majority that wants to be part of the KRG, we must not allow there to be a war between Kurds and Arabs. Nothing is more important than avoiding that war. It will just destroy the future for our children. Iraq is just beginning its recover and if we miss this opportunity we will always regret it." And despite growing discord and the threat of war, non-Kurdish politicians in northern Iraq say much of it is bombast that neither side has the stomach or ability to follow through on.

"Let Baghdad and Erbil talk about war if they want but that's all it is - it's talk, empty words," said Younan Hozaya, the Erbil-based deputy leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. They can all talk about fighting but there won't be a war. The Kurds can say no a hundred times over Kirkuk but they cannot forcibly take it. In the end it will be settled by a political deal." psands@thenational.ae