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Arab-Kurdish Divide Dominating U.S Agenda

Daniel Graeber
Six years after the conflict began, and three years after the Iraq Study Group (ISG) issued its set of recommendations, political reconciliation among the various factions in Iraq remains a top concern for policy…
1.09.2009  |  Washington D.C

The dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and the Bagdad central government is one of the more contentious issues dominating the debate among U.S policy makers. Sectarian tensions among the Sunnis and Shiites seem to have subsided but resolving tensions in the north of the country remains an urgent matter.

Iraq in 2006 teetered on the edge of civil war, with al-Qaida working to divide the nation from its stronghold in the western deserts and Shiite and Sunni factions using violence as a political tool in Baghdad. The recommendations outlined by the 10 members of the ISG led U.S. President George W. Bush to recognize that a "new approach" was needed.

Bush ultimately embraced the counterinsurgency doctrine for Iraq that would come to be known as the surge, or what the president described as "the new way forward." In a January 2007 address, Bush explained the objective of the surge was to establish a unified Iraq that could "govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself."

While the surge did not significantly advance Iraqi political reconciliation, it did succeed in lowering levels of violence. Two years on and in the midst of a successful January provincial election, Baghdad and Washington moved forward with a bilateral security agreement that called for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.

Today, however, many of the key elements of the ISG focusing on national reconciliation linger in the minds of American policy makers, especially regarding tensions between the KRG and Baghdad.

Conflict in the disputed territories, which run along a de facto border from Sinjar near the western border with Syria to Khanaqin near Iran, is not new. Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces nearly fought one another in August 2008 over jurisdictional disputes in Khanaqin and Arab-Kurdish relations have deteriorated in recent months.

Mosul, the provincial capital of Ninawa, remains a sore spot for American military commanders as disputes between the Sunni Hadbaa government in Ninawa and ethnic Kurds emerged as a source of tension, with both groups contesting claims of legitimacy.

Considering these tensions, U.S. military commanders had considered exceptions to the June withdrawal date for American soldiers.

"If the Iraqi government believes we should stay in Mosul to continue the security progress, we'll support our Iraqi counterparts past June 30 and continue to build on the momentum that we've got here," U.S. Army Col. Gary Volesky told reporters in April.

With August violence reaching new levels, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, said earlier assessments of the north were valid.

"I think they'd all feel more comfortable with us there," he told reporters in early August.

The Iraqi Parliament had tasked members of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq with finding a power-sharing agreement between the varied ethnic groups in Kirkuk, the oil-rich city at the heart of Arab-Kurdish tensions. But even the United Nations appears unable to settle the issue alone, notes Dan Serwer, a vice president at the congressionally-funded U.S. Institute of Peace and director of the ISG.

"Leaving these issues entirely to the United Nations will not get us the kind of resolution required to allow a U.S. withdrawal from the disputed territories," he says.

U.S. military commanders and policy analysts now fear that lingering issues between the KRG and the central Baghdad government could erupt into violence should disputes go unmitigated before U.S. troops leave in 2011.

Wayne White, who led the State Department's Iraq intelligence team during 2003-2005 and later served on a working panel for the ISG, says it is unclear how long Kurds will tolerate stalemates before resorting to stronger measures.

"Although reluctant to confront the government, they can call not only on their own Peshmerga militia, but potentially also sizeable, nearby largely Kurdish units of the Iraqi army, providing considerable clout," says White. He is quick to add, however, that conflict fatigue left over from the sectarian conflict that gripped Iraq from 2006 to 2007 lingers in the minds of most parties to these disputes.

Meanwhile, schisms remain among many of the influential Shiite factions. Al-Maliki launched a major military offensive in Basra in 2008 to extract control of the southern port region away from Shiite militias.

The offensive, dubbed Charge of the Knights, helped al-Maliki and his State of Law coalition win major concessions in January provincial elections throughout much of the south. But questions remain whether the offensive brought political stability or ushered in simmering resentment from al-Maliki's rivals.

With Iraq preparing for national elections in January, al-Maliki, riding on the support of his State of Law coalition, may be tested politically with the emergence of the Iraqi National Alliance, an Iranian-backed coalition led by rivals in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. This could set the stage for another possible showdown in the south as elections draw near.

Despite these concerns, it seems there is little enthusiasm in Washington for an intensive political effort to resolve the ongoing issues of national reconciliation, as was the case in 2006 with the ISG. The objective now, analysts say, is to prevent an all out war between the Arabs and Kurds.

With American generals tacitly calling for redeployment in the north, the durability of the plans for the U.S. military under the terms of the bilateral status of forces agreement is in doubt.

"I think the sense is that this is a serious problem with potential for delaying U.S. withdrawal," notes Serwer.

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