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Iraqi Kurds assert claims in face of US withdrawal

Anthony Skinner
4 August 2009

On 16 July 2009, the prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechirvan Barzani, said in an interview that the KRG and the Iraqi federal government were closer to war than at any time since the US-led invasion in 2003. His comment highlights the extreme tension that has mounted over recent weeks between Erbil, the seat of the KRG, and Baghdad at a time when US forces are gradually withdrawing from the country.

Anthony Skinner is a principal analyst at specialist global risks consultancy, MaplecroftThe current level of friction between Baghdad and Erbil is partly explained by an unprecedented vote in Iraqi Kurdistan's regional assembly to approve a draft constitution on 24 June 2009. The vote was passed with 96 ballots in favour in the 111-seated regional parliament. Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who envisages a strong central federal government, regards the act as provocation by the Kurds, and with good reason too. The draft constitution brings the hotly disputed oil-rich province of Tamim, as well as disputed areas in Nineveh and Diyala Provinces, under the control of the KRG. The draft text also identifies the Kurdish peshmerga as the primary military force in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding that the KRG has the right to deploy the force outside the region as it sees fit.

Significantly, the decision by Iraqi Kurdistan's regional assembly to vote on the draft constitution signals that Iraq's Kurds are serious about their territorial claims in the region, sending a stark message to Baghdad that the departure of US forces from Iraq will not make them more pliant on matters related to disputed territory.

Stoking tensions

All the more concerning has been the increased distrust between the Kurdish peshmerga and federal forces in northern Iraq - marked by what appears to be an attempt by Baghdad and Erbil to exert control over disputed territories. On 28 June 2009, 2,000 peshmerga faced off with an Arab-led Iraqi army unit that was approaching Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. The Kurds claimed that the unit was attempting to enter the town, leading KRG leaders, Iraqi officials in Baghdad and the US military to negotiate for 24 hours for an end to the standoff. The federal unit was then diverted.

Such standoffs could become more frequent in northern Iraq, raising the spectre for tension to erupt into violence between federal troops and Kurdish forces loyal to the KRG. As testimony to the risk, Prime Minister Barzani has warned that fighting between federal and Kurdish forces might have started in the most volatile regions of Iraqi Kurdistan had it not been for the presence of US forces in northern Iraq. The Kurds are understandably uneasy about a bilateral agreement between Baghdad and Washington that envisages a full withdrawal of US forces from the country by the end of 2011.

The KRG meanwhile remains concerned that Prime Minister al-Maliki is not only looking to tighten Baghdad's control over northern Iraq, but also reduce the power and influence of the Kurds in Iraq as a whole. These fears were confirmed when, in May 2009, al-Maliki declared during a television interview that if consensus rule could not be achieved in Baghdad then the alternative would be for majority rule (between 75% and 80% of Iraq's population is Arab, compared with 15% to 20% Kurdish, and 5% Turkoman and Assyrian). However, al-Maliki is not altogether unjustified in considering majority rule in Baghdad given that the cabinet is unable to push its legislative agenda through parliament due to stiff resistance from Kurdish MPs and Arab nationalists.

Personal animosity between KRG President Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister al-Maliki has made the chances of compromise between Erbil and Baghdad over disputed territory in northern Iraq that much harder to achieve. For example, in January 2009, Barzani stated: "We know that there is someone (al-Maliki) who wants to restore dictatorship in Iraq through the control of army and the police." The director if intelligence and security for the KRG, Masrour Barzani, likewise believes that al-Maliki is waiting for US forces to leave and then retake the areas held by federal troops prior to 2003. According to this rationale, only then will Baghdad sit down to negotiate with the KRG about disputed territory. Al-Maliki, for his part, maintains that the KRG has separatist tendencies.

The energy lynchpin

Al-Maliki's view is shared by many Arab nationalists, who believe that Kurdish authorities want to carve northern Iraq into a sovereign state sustained through massive oil wealth. Kurdish officials say that Iraqi Kurdistan has up to 45bn of Iraq's 115bn barrels of oil reserves - a figure that could increase to 65bn barrels in the unlikely event that all of northern Iraq's disputed areas come under the control of the KRG. The Kurds, meanwhile, continue to complain about delays in payments from Baghdad of their 17% share of the national budget, adding that the federal government has even threatened to cut the region's budgetary entitlements.

In this context, it is little surprise that Erbil was angered in late-June 2009 by Baghdad's failure to consult prior to holding an auction for six oil and two gas fixed-fee oil service contracts, including for the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk fields in northern Iraq's Tamim governorate. Kurdish politicians point out that the federal government's failure to engage and discuss the plan with the KRG prior to the auction was unconstitutional, and that the federal oil ministry does not have the right to tender these fields until the status of the disputed Tamim governorate is resolved. Although the service contracts for the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk fields have not yet been awarded, Baghdad's unilateral approach to granting service contracts may have encouraged Erbil to hold its vote on the draft constitution in the regional assembly earlier than planned.

Forecast

The high risk of a military conflict erupting between the KRG and central government could in fact force the two sides together as it not in the interest of either to plunge the country into a civil war. Yet, Baghdad and Erbil have failed to put in place mechanisms to avoid inadvertent military conflict, or its escalation. Concerningly, the US has not managed to establish consensus or a greater degree of trust between the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs. The risk of such a conflict erupting will therefore increase if Washington sticks to its plan to withdraw all US forces from Iraq by 2011, and Erbil and Baghdad continue to provoke each other. The withdrawal would effectively remove an external military force that could intervene should ethnic and sectarian conflict escalate further.

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