Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Kurdish Problem

This is an issue I have been blogging about since the inception of this blog - Iraq's problem with an adventurous Kurdish north that wants to establish what amounts to a separate state. One of the aspects of that was the "Article 140" problem - the drive by the Kurds to claim Kirkuk, with its giant oil basin, as their own. As the NYT notes today, this has developed into a "powder keg."

This from the NYT:

The phone rang, and it was answered by a Kurdish security commander, Hallo Najat, sitting in his office in this deeply divided city. On the line, he said, was a United Nations official wanting to know whether it was true that the Kurdish militia, the pesh merga, had left its bases in northern Iraq and was occupying Kirkuk.

No, Mr. Najat told the caller. But after hanging up, he wryly revealed the deeper truth about Kirkuk, combustible for its mix of ethnicities floating together on a sea of oil: the Kurds already control it.

“It’s true,” Mr. Najat said. “What is the need for the troops?”

Of all the political problems facing Iraq today, perhaps none is so intractable as the fate of Kirkuk, a city of 900,000 that Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens all claim as their own. The explosive quarrel over the city is one major barrier to creating stable political structures in the rest of Iraq.

Beyond that, it demonstrates that despite a recent decline in violence, Iraq’s unsettled ethnic and regional discord could still upend directives emanating from Baghdad and destabilize large swaths of the country — or even set off a civil war.

This month, legislation in the national Parliament to set the groundwork for crucial provincial elections collapsed in a bitter dispute over Kirkuk, as Arabs and Turkmens demanded that the Kurds be forced to cede some of their power here. But with the Kurds having already consolidated their authority in Kirkuk, there seemed little chance — short of a military intervention — of that happening.

Kurdish authority is visible everywhere in the city. In addition to the provincial government and command of the police, the Kurds control the Asaish, the feared undercover security service that works with the American military and, according to Asaish commanders, United States intelligence agencies.

Asaish officers are often the first to the scene of an attack and, other Kurdish officials concede, seem always to have the best intelligence. The leaders of the Asaish report only to the dominant Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

“He’s my boss,” said Mr. Najat, the commander of the K.D.P. Asaish force in Kirkuk, glancing at a picture of Masrur Barzani, the head of intelligence for the K.D.P. and the son of the party’s leader, Massoud Barzani.

. . . Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurdish families were ousted from Kirkuk, replaced by Arabs as part of his drive to obtain a firmer political grip on the enormous oil reserves here. But after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurdish militiamen reversed the process, driving out Arabs and bringing in Kurds. Arabs and Turkmens now make up about 40 percent of Kirkuk’s population, according to American military estimates.

The Kurds want to fold Kirkuk into the neighboring Kurdistan region. They also warn that any plan stripping them of power will be harshly contested.

. . . Colonel Paschal blames all the political parties for inflaming tensions to serve their interests. But he said it was difficult to comprehend the level of mistrust.

“Negotiations here are, ‘You give me everything I want, and I will walk away happy,’ ” he said. “It is hard for us to appreciate the level of ethnic hatred.”

Read the entire article.

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