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Analysts: Iraq's Arab-Kurd Dispute Could Be Greatest Stability Threat

Iraq's prime minister flew to Northern Iraq's Kurdish region August 1 to try to ease tensions that threaten the fragile stability the country has achieved in recent months. The territorial and revenue disputes between the region and the Arab-dominated central government have come to the forefront as violence from Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents has dropped and U.S. forces have reduced their combat role as they prepare to leave in large numbers next year. Many experts believe the dispute has become the greatest threat to future peace in the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made the gesture of traveling to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region Saturday for his first meeting this year with regional President Massoud Barzani. Afterwards, Prime Minister Maliki called for more meetings and more cooperation, and President Barzani said he would send a delegation to Baghdad.

Kurdish region enjoys peace, prosperity

In many countries, regional issues involving borders and revenue would not be a major threat to security. But Northern Iraq's Kurdish region has its own army, the peshmerga, and has enjoyed near independence from the rest of the country since the United States began enforcing a no-fly zone in the area against the forces of Saddam Hussein in 1991. The area is peaceful and prosperous, and just had the latest in a series of elections for its regional government.

The Kurds believe they are in a strong position to press for their demands - more territory where ethnic-Kurds live south of the current regional border, and a larger share of the country's oil revenue. But the central government is also feeling stronger, with an improved army and more power from the reduced U.S. role, and many Iraqi Arabs tend to believe the Kurdish area is already too large.

"I think the natural dynamic here is not necessarily all that promising," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at a Washington research organization, the Brookings Institution.

"You have totally different world views about how to settle this thing," O'Hanlon added. "And I don't see any movement towards a convergence. The whole notion of a separate Kurdistan is a little bit at odds with the notion of the new Iraq that everyone's trying to build. So, I think you need a compromise."

Disagreement on referendum

Iraq's constitution calls for a referendum on the future status of Iraqi Kurdistan, and on its borders. But the deadline for that has already passed. The two sides cannot agree on just what the referendum should be about, or who should be allowed to vote it in. Most controversial is the status of the city of Kirkuk, which Kurds hold dear, but is not now in their territory. Its population is ethnically mixed, and its surrounding region is rich in oil reserves.

As the Iraqi army has grown stronger, there have been several standoffs between the national force and the Kurdish peshmerga. In some cases, only the presence of American forces prevented violence. Michael O'Hanlon says the situation is a recipe for disaster, and the United States needs to take a leading role in mediating Iraq's Kurd-Arab dispute while it still has the added weight of 130,000 troops in the country.

"My view is that, in fact, we see an increasingly strong Iraqi Army in closer contact with the peshmerga in ways that make the whole situation more dangerous, and that American influence, already reduced from what it used to be, is going to keep declining as we pull troops out, especially next year, and that the Iraqis do not have any sense of how to solve this on their own," he said. "So, I think we should use the American influence while we've got it."

US defense secretary visits region

Senior U.S. officials have been trying to do that. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Iraq in late July and after discussing the issue with Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad traveled north to meet regional President Barzani at his official residence in Irbil.

"I, at least, took from both that they shared the view that it was important to try and make progress and get some sustainable compromises, while we were still in a position to be helpful," Gates said.

But one of Washington's top analysts doesn't think that's practical, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Any agreement is going to take years to work out and test," he noted. "These are the kinds of problems which work out not out of one agreement or one referendum. They work out over half a decade of patient effort. And, the whole idea we can get this done before our troops go out, that isn't possible."

Compromise is key

Cordesman says, even though both sides are feeling politically and militarily stronger these days, they need to work toward a political compromise.

"The fact is the Kurds have to realize that, if they do not reach a compromise, they're isolated, that they're going to face hostile powers on all of the sides. They are a landlocked, small entity. The Iraqis [Arabs] have to understand that, if they want security to the north, they have to compromise with the Kurds," he said.

At Brookings, Michael O'Hanlon believes outsiders need to help move the process along.

"I would suggest the following process. We bring together an international advisory board that comes up with one option, obviously in ongoing consultation with Iraqis to make sure that a maximum number of Iraqi politicians buy into the idea and influence the idea as it's being created. And the goal here should be to get every major Iraqi political group to support it. The only thing you ever vote on is a reasonable compromise," O'Hanlon said.

O'Hanlon adds, if Iraq's Arab-Kurd dispute is not at least on the road to being settled before U.S. troops leave at the end of 2011, the country could go on with a relatively peaceful status quo. But, he is concerned that, without U.S. troops, the dispute could spark an Iraqi civil war, with both sides heavily armed, just as the country is supposed to be on its way to stability.