Saturday, December 19, 2009

Iraq, the Kurds and the Americans

Published: December 17, 2009

Four months ago, with little fanfare, the State Department sent a full-time senior diplomat, Alan Misenheimer, to live in Iraq’s disputed oil-rich city Kirkuk. For the Obama administration, which had been hoping to back out of its day-to-day involvement in Iraq’s fractious politics, it was a smart, if belated, call.

It was a recognition that the bitter discord between Iraq’s Kurdish regional government and the Shiite-Arab- dominated central government — over land, oil and the power of the central government — is the most dangerous fault line in Iraq today. It was also an acknowledgment that if these conflicts are to be settled, or at least kept from igniting a new civil war, there must be deft and sustained American involvement.

Kurds and Arabs both lay claim to Kirkuk. This complicates, at times paralyzes, federal decision-making, including issues regarding the recently adopted election law. A referendum on Kirkuk’s future, required by the Iraqi Constitution, has been postponed repeatedly because of Baghdad’s fear that it would formalize Kurdish control.

In July, the Kurds came perilously close to holding a referendum on a regional constitution that would have unilaterally asserted control over Kirkuk. (Iraq’s election commission conveniently decided there wasn’t time to include the issue on the Kurdish ballots and Vice President Joe Biden, who has longstanding ties to the Kurds, urged the Kurds to postpone the referendum.)

There have been military face-offs — but luckily no actual conflict — between Kurdish and Arab troops. Sunni Arab extremists linked to Al Qaeda are eager to exploit these tensions.

The situation cannot be left to drift. Washington must make clear it will not accept a Kurdish secession or a Kurdish grab for Kirkuk, and that either would mean the end of American support. Baghdad must engage in good-faith negotiations over disputed territory and ensure that the Kurds receive an equitable share of oil revenue. But the Kurds must abandon any dream of controlling all of the region’s oil revenue. The United States estimates Kurdistan has 10-15 percent of Iraq’s reserves while the Kirkuk area holds as much as 25 percent.

Since the end of the gulf war, Washington has been the Kurds’ chief patron, defender and, at times, enabler.

To protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, NATO imposed a no-flight zone over northern Iraq and helped the Kurds build their autonomous region there — a virtual state within a state, commonly known as Kurdistan.

During the 2003 American invasion, the Bush administration enlisted the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, as a proxy force and gave it free rein to expand beyond the 1991 regional border.

The Kurdish government, which officially controls three provinces, also claims cities and towns in three more just over the regional border. Those claims have become more insistent as President Obama’s August 2010 deadline for withdrawing combat troops nears.

With just eight months until then, American officials — in Iraq and in Washington — have a lot of work to do to lower tensions between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq. Here are some of the most pressing issues:

2010 ELECTION It took considerable American arm-twisting to get the Iraqis to drop their disputes (including ones over who could vote in Kirkuk) and adopt a law for parliamentary elections, now scheduled for March. The election is a key test of Iraq’s nascent democracy and a prerequisite for American troops to depart on schedule. American officials must press Iraqi politicians to avoid the kind of absolutist ethnically based campaign rhetoric that will make post-election deals harder.

After the 2005 elections it took the Iraqis months to agree on a government. Experts expect Kurdish leaders to demand Kirkuk-related concessions as part of a deal to choose a prime minister and deputies. Iraq’s political system is stronger, but in this critical phase, American officials still must be ready to cajole, and, if necessary, push Iraqis to form a government and move ahead.

KIRKUK Decades of horrific abuse by Saddam Hussein — including the 1988 gassing of thousands of Kurds in Halabja — have driven Kurdish mistrust and resentment. Saddam forced thousands of Kurds and other minorities from the region and repopulated it with Arabs. That does not inevitably entitle the Kurds to more than a dozen disputed towns and villages in three border provinces: Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala.

© The New York Times