The U.S. Secretary of Defense blames al-Qaida for a recent increase in violence in Iraq that has sparked sectarian strife. And as the United States reduces its military forces in Iraq, Robert Gates says it will be increasingly important to monitor the contentious relationship there between Arabs and Kurds.
Tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq have been rising over a number of issues, including oil policy and the status of disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
A British Perspective
British journalist Ian Williams, who reports from the United Nations in New York, says Iraqi Kurds are functionally autonomous but have not given up their dream of eventual independence – something opposed by both the United States and Turkey. He explains the Iraqi Kurds are competing with the Sunni Arabs for control over the cities of Kirkuk and Mosel.
Speaking with host Judith Latham on VOA’s International Press Club, Ian Williams says the problem goes back to the history of the formation of Iraq. One of the reasons the British abandoned their pledge to a Kurdish state at the end of World War I, he notes, was because of their concern about continued access to oil. “On the same premise,” Williams says, “Saddam Hussein carried out ethnic cleansing and cleared the Kurds from Kirkuk and the surrounding region and tried to Arabize it.” Even after the fall of Saddam, there has been little progress in resolving either the status of Kirkuk or the future apportionment of oil revenues between the central government in Baghdad and the various regions of Iraq, Williams observes.
According to Ian Williams, Ankara’s strong opposition to a separate Kurdish state (as opposed to a Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq) is the main reason for Washington’s opposition to Kurdish independence. Were it not for that, he says, “The United States would have been very happy to see a friendly, independent Kurdistan in the north of Iraq.” Nonetheless, several members of what Williams calls the “foreign policy elite” have suggested partitioning Iraq “between Arabs and Kurds – and amongst the Arabs between the Shi’a and Sunnis.” He says “This dispute, which has been brewing for a century, was exacerbated by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and how the war was subsequently conducted.”
Under the new Iraqi Constitution established in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, the majority Shi’a, the minority Sunni Arabs, and the minority Iraqi Kurds were to share in the governance of Iraq. Ian Williams says even though Iraqi Kurds do not speak publically about their ultimate political goal, “their desire for independence has not abated at all.” According to Williams, it would be foolish for any Kurdish political leader to say the Kurds want independence “because that would be an invitation to Ankara to come riding onto them, not to mention giving the people in Baghdad an excuse for telling them that they are being disloyal.”
Ian Williams says the whole idea of basing states on homogenous ethnic and religious groups is a West European idea that has “poisoned every area it has infected.” He adds, “Just look at Bosnia. The old Balkan saying on this applies to Iraq as well, ‘Why should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine?’”
An Arab Perspective
Arab journalist Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent for the Middle East Broadcasting Center, says she thinks the long-awaited referendum on the status of Kirkuk will be postponed indefinitely. She notes that the current population of the city is mixed – Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians.
Nadia Bilbassy says both the Sunni Arabs and the Iraqis want to keep it under their control. An interesting development, Bilbassy suggests, is that Iraqi President Jalal Talibani, who is Kurdish, has announced that he will not seek reelection. Bilbassy says, “That could further complicate the question as to whether the status of Kirkuk can be solved.” And worse yet, she adds, it could turn into a major conflict between the Kurds and the central government.
The ethnic makeup has changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bilbassy notes, and “some areas have been ethnically cleansed.” She warns that we should “not forget there are four million Iraqi refugees.” And that means, as they return, “the situation on the ground will be fluid.” Bilbassy says Iraq could descend into chaos, which could in turn provoke a civil war. “The problem with the Kurds is that, although they have all the ingredients to make them a nation and a state, their interest in being a state goes against the interests of neighboring countries and other Western powers, including the United States,” she explains.
A Kurdish Perspective
Kurdish journalist Asos Ahmed Hardi is the director of Awena (Mirror) Company, which publishes a weekly newspaper in Sulaymaniya. He says just this week it was announced that parliamentary elections for the Kurdish Regional Government will be held on July 25th. He explains the Kurds did not participate in Iraq’s provincial election in January because their local parliament has to draft its own laws for provincial elections.
According to Asos Ahmed Hardi, the most sensitive issue is Kirkuk. “The central government in Baghdad doesn’t want final negotiations because they know that, if they apply Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution and hold a referendum, the majority will vote with the Kurds,” he says.
Is Civil War a Possibility?
Looming over the competing factions in Iraq is the question of whether the promised withdrawal of American troops will plunge Iraq into a civil war. U.S. President Barack Obama answered that question during his surprise visit to Baghdad last month. He told Iraq’s leaders the U.S. withdrawal will be done responsibly and without plunging the country into chaos. But knowing the history of Iraq’s internal strife between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, fulfilling that promise will be a difficult challenge.