Friday, February 1, 2008

The Biggest Threat To Iraq

The biggest threat to Iraq in the long is not al Qaeda, and arguably, not Iran. It is the seperatism and adventurism of the Kurds that threatens to destroy the central government of Iraq and be the cause of a true civil war.


As I have written previously:

Under our umbrella of protection after the first Gulf War, the Kurds became a separate country and, after the fall of Saddam, made clear that they had no desire to reintegrate into a larger Iraq. They have tried to stay out of the ambit of national laws, attempted to exercise control over oil assets in the north - including the passage of their own hydrocarbon laws in August in direct opposition to the Iraq central government - and manuevered to take control of Kirkuk and Mosul. They have played against our efforts over the past several years to create a united Iraq, . . .

See here.

With that in mind, there is this today from the NYT:

As a minority group in Iraq, the Kurds have enjoyed disproportionate influence in the country’s politics since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But now their leverage appears to be declining as tensions rise with Iraqi Arabs, raising the specter of another fissure alongside the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

The Kurds, who are mostly Sunni but not Arab, have steadfastly backed the government, most recently helping to keep it afloat when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki lacked support from much of Parliament.

With their political acumen, close ties to the Americans and technical competence at running government agencies, the Kurds cemented a position of enormous strength. This allowed them to all but dictate terms in Iraq’s Constitution that gave them considerable regional autonomy and some significant rights in oil development.

But now the Kurds are pursuing policies that are antagonizing the other factions. The Kurds’ efforts to seize control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and to gain a more advantageous division of national revenues are uniting most Sunnis and many Shiites with Mr. Maliki’s government in opposition to the Kurdish demands.

For the United States, the diminution in Kurdish power is part of a larger problem of political divisiveness that has plagued its efforts to build a functioning government in Iraq. While several political parties can come together to address a particular issue, none can seem to form the lasting allegiances needed for actual governance.

The Kurds, with their pro-American outlook, were a natural ally. But now the Americans are increasingly placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the Kurds, whom they have long supported and protected, and the Iraqi Arabs, whose government the Americans helped create.

One major Shiite group, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, has not publicly taken sides, but powerful people within the party have been openly critical of the Kurds. Others expressing frustration are leading members of Parliament and Hussain al-Shahristani, the oil minister and a prominent Shiite politician, who calls Kurdish oil contracts with foreign companies illegal.

Humam Hamoudi, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said, “They are no longer the egg in the balance,” using an Arabic proverb that refers to the item that tips the scale. Mr. Hamoudi added, “The Kurds are not so powerful.”

Independent analysts largely back that assertion. “There’s a strong feeling that the Kurds have overreached,” said Joost Hiltermann, a senior analyst for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group who is based in Istanbul.

“The Kurds had their eye on independence in the long term, and they wanted to use the current window to increase the territory they hold and the powers they exercise within the territory,” he added. “They’ve done well on the powers, but not so well on the territory. They now face real restrictions.”

The jousting threatens to undermine much of what the Kurds have achieved in political influence and to supersede, at least temporarily, the far deeper divide between Sunnis and Shiites.

And by helping unite Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds’ overreaching has strengthened the hand of Mr. Maliki despite widespread doubts about his ability to govern effectively. The tensions could even persuade the central government to further postpone an already delayed referendum on whether to make Kirkuk part of the Kurds’ semiautonomous region.

. . . In a signal of its displeasure, Parliament has refused to approve a new budget because it awards the Kurds 17 percent of the total revenues, which many representatives say is more than their share based on population. Because Iraq has not had a census in decades, it is impossible to know the true size of the Kurdish population. Some Kurdish leaders say it could be 23 percent; some Arabs say it is 13 percent.

The Kurds are also believed to collect millions of dollars in duties on goods coming into Iraq but they neither send the money to Baghdad nor share accounts of the income, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Parliament members are also angered that the Kurds want Baghdad to pay salaries of their militia, the pesh merga, from the Defense Ministry’s budget. The pesh merga operate primarily in Kurdistan rather than serving the country as a whole.

However, the Kurds contend that in the event of an invasion they would be on the front lines. Such a situation seems all too real to the Kurds, because Turkey has recently threatened to invade to rout the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party. The rebels have been mounting attacks over the border into Turkish territory.

Perhaps most grating for Iraqi Arabs, the Kurds have refused to back down on the oil exploration contracts they have signed with foreign companies. Arabs view the central government as the only entity empowered to approve contracts, albeit in consultation with the regions where the oil is located.

The Kurds argue that the central government has been dragging its feet on an oil law and that they cannot afford to defer oil exploration and development further, said Ros Shawees, a former vice president of Iraq and point man in Baghdad for Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Kurds acknowledge that they are worried by the opposition that has developed, although they are reluctant to concede that they may have overplayed their hand. “It is necessary to keep such feelings to a minimum,” Mr. Shawees said. “We have to work in different respects to show that the Kurdish region doesn’t just make demands and take things, but that the region is an example for all regions and it can benefit all Iraq.”

For now, however, the budget has yet to be approved, the oil law and revenue sharing laws are in limbo, and there is a new and visible fault line on the Iraqi political scene.

Read the article. The Kurds have in fact significantly overreached. There can be little doubt that the U.S. sent a message to the Kurds when it began providing actionable intelligence to Turkey about the location of PKK forces across the Iraqi border. The question is whether the Kurds are listening?

1 comment:

subadei said...

One could argue that the US intelligence provisions were as much a means to "steer" the Turkish offensive as they were an act of benevolent concern for an "ally." (Let's not forget the ambivalence this "ally" showed prior to the invasion of Iraq.)

The Kurds are the silver lining should the Iraq theater dissolve into failure. Failure, of course, isn't quite as easily defined as some would have it to be. On the flip side, neither is success or victory.

But I digress. The matter at hand is that while we're seeing progress via the Surge it's important to realize that the advantage of the Anbar Awakening is a gamble as it's a tactic (empowering the tribal base) that runs contrary to our ultimate strategy in Iraq (a cohesive nation state.) What's lacking is a method to bridge the tribal empowerment to the national reconciliation.

Of the entirety of Iraq the Kurds have moved forward in a consistent fashion while the Iraqi "government" has languished. I wouldn't be so quick to relegate the Kurds to obstruction. And forcing the Kurds into an untenable position of coalescence may well prove our bane.