Of Blood, Oil and Kurdistan

Why U.S. withdrawal may trigger an entirely new war in Iraq.

As US troops are primed to leave Iraq and the situation in Iraq’s disputed territories remains unresolved, the likelihood of escalating tensions along the so-called trigger line increases. While communication and cooperation between Iraqi army and Kurdish regional guard forces has improved, they continue to face off across this unmarked line of control, which meanders through an elongated territory that is rich in ethnic diversity and, by twist of nature, oil, stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border. Their tenuous relationship could come unglued when the US presence in their midst changes from military to civilian at the end of this year.

Last month, in the latest reminder of how explosive the situation remains, bombs killed scores in Kirkuk, the city and governorate at the core of the conflict. Kirkuk’s ethnic communities each have contending claims to the area’s status: the Kurds wish to attach it to the adjacent Kurdistan region; the Turkomans would like for it to become a stand-alone region under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s control; and the Arabs mostly favor the status quo—a province directly under Baghdad’s rule. In pressing their claims, demographics—who has the right to live and vote in Kirkuk—have become the principal battleground. Had oil been absent from the equation, the status question would have become a good deal less incendiary; the significance of the area’s ethnic makeup and numbers would largely have faded; and there would have been no need for the deployment of rival security forces.

The US military presence has succeeded in keeping the lid on tensions that never cease to boil just beneath the surface. It is for this reason that Kirkuki politicians of all stripes have called for an extension of the US troop presence in Iraq, but so far the Maliki government has given no indication it is prepared to face the likely political fallout from supporting such a call and negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement. Lacking mutual trust, suspecting each other’s motives, and manipulated by more powerful forces outside Kirkuk, these politicians have been unable to come to a basic agreement even over how to govern the area, regardless of its status. Provincial elections have been postponed indefinitely, while the process envisioned under Art. 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which addresses the disputed territories, has stalled: most property disputes have yet to be settled; the census has suffered repeated delays; and no one is even talking seriously about a status referendum. The only positive development was the appointment last month of a Turkoman as Kirkuk’s provincial council chairman, which removed a dispute between the previous (Kurdish) chairman and the (also Kurdish) governor, while providing greater ethnic diversity at the leadership level.

The situation cries out for international mediation, and the United Nations has indeed put out feelers to determine whether it could play a meaningful role in getting talks started and outlining a roadmap. Yet progress is slow, reflecting the fragility of the ruling coalition in Baghdad and the complexity of the issues involved. Very little is likely to happen before US troops pull out, and all sides are now starting to prepare for that eventuality.

The Kurds have been the first to move, citing security concerns. During the Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, in late 2010, they deployed Asaesh security personnel throughout Kirkuk city, angering Arabs and Turkomans. In February, they sent troops to the city’s southern gateway, violating a security arrangement with their Iraqi and US partners in the so-called combined security mechanism, a system of joint checkpoints and patrols that has served to keep the peace. Kurdish leaders claim they obtained a green light from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it’s more likely that Maliki, caught flatfooted and worried about widespread demonstrations molded on the Egyptian and Tunisian examples, was in no position to resist the move. Following US pressure, the Kurdish forces withdrew a month later.

The Kurds’ military assertiveness has been widely interpreted as an attempt to probe their adversaries’ resolve. Perhaps they feel heartened by the result, but they would be wrong to interpret Maliki’s passiveness in February as a potential willingness to acquiesce in a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk once US troops are no longer there to ease the Kurds back out. No Arab leader in Iraq could hope to survive politically if he is seen to surrender Kirkuk to the Kurds, and inversely Kurdish leaders would lose all their credibility if they failed to stand up to an Iraqi army bid to drive the Kurds out of Kirkuk. This means that if the current standoff persists, unilateral moves, by either side, will without doubt trigger armed conflict once the US security blanket is removed.

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