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Arab-Kurdish Tensions Seriously Complicate Iraqi Politics



Military and civilian deaths from violence in Iraq declined in October to the lowest level since May 2004. Still, regional analysts worry that the political situation is deteriorating. The struggle over Kirkuk and other disputed territories represents a major area of contention.


The International Crisis Group, a private international research organization, recently warned that the long-festering conflict over northern Iraq could have what it called a devastating impact on efforts to rebuild Iraq’s fragmented state. The ICG says the conflict potentially matches, or even exceeds, the Sunni-Shi’a divide that spawned the 2005 to 2007 sectarian war.

An Arab Perspective

Nadia Bilbassy, senior news correspondent with the Middle East News Center, says that dramatic assessment is unfortunately not without merit. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Bilbassy says many parties are vying for power, trying to maximize their representation and access to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.


According to the ICG report, Iraq’s legislative agenda is bogged down by a dispute over territories that the Kurds claim as historically belonging to them. The ICG says Kurdish leaders have signaled an intention to hold politics in Baghdad hostage. Furthermore, it notes Iraqi Arabs fear that the Kurds’ long-term goal is independence.

Nadia Bilbassy calls the political impasse very troubling, particularly in view of the recent U.S. failure to reach a security agreement with Baghdad. She says the rationale for the U.S. troop surge was to give the political parties in Iraq “breathing space” so they would be able to reach an agreement. However, the tension between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds has not diminished.

A Kurdish Perspective

But Kurdish journalist Omar Sheikhmous, speaking from Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, says Arab concerns over Kirkuk are exaggerated. He says the Kurds have no intention of provoking violent conflict, but are instead trying to find a political solution through dialogue and compromise, not through pressure. He says they would like to reach a settlement as soon as possible. According to Sheikhmous, the idea of the Kurds going it alone is simply not a realistic option.

Furthermore, Omar Sheikmous calls untrue the reports of strained relations over the issue of Kurkuk between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government. The disagreement, he says, mainly concerns the power of the central government vis-à-vis that of the regional governments. Sheikhmous notes that the United States favors a strong central government like the one that existed in Iraq before, whereas the Kurds prefer a federal government that is loosely connected to the regional governments.


An Impasse

Nadia Bilbassy of the Middle East News Center says the bottom line is that politicians on both sides are unwilling to compromise, and they are jockeying for maximum gain. She suggests that the Kurds are “waving the independence card” in the hope that in return for dropping it they will gain more control over Kirkuk.

In addition, U.S. commanders in Iraq have expressed growing concern that the city of Mosul could degenerate into a battleground and threaten the fragile Iraqi state. Bilbassy says Washington needs to put pressure on Baghdad to reach an agreement that is inclusive and representative of all the political factions in Iraq. And she predicts President-elect Barack Obama is going to inherit what she calls a “huge headache.” Bilbassy says the problem is that Washington doesn’t have many cards to play at this point because there are neighboring countries that are interested in filling in if American troops withdraw. So, it is really a tough situation.

So tough, in fact, that Kurdish journalist Omar Sheikhmous suggests U.S. troops may need to remain in Iraq until the political situation stabilizes. And he estimates that could take another five years.

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