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IRAQ: Is Another Conflict Inevitable?

WASHINGTON, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - Relations between Iraq’s various Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman ethnicities are going through a new round of complications since a provision in the draft constitution of the country’s northern Kurdistan region declared a range of disputed areas part of the historical Kurdish homeland, infuriating non-Kurds in the country.

All this comes against a backdrop of already high ethnic tensions and desperate U.S. attempts to stabilise Iraq as it prepares for a gradual withdrawal.

The controversial draft constitution passed in late June by Kurdish parliamentarians in the northern city of Irbil proclaims several key areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk, Khanaqin and districts around Mosul part of the “historical-geographical entity of Iraqi Kurdistan”.

Out of 97 lawmakers present at the session, 96 voted in favour of the document. Officials have said they will soon put the charter to a popular referendum in the three provinces of Kurdistan. Despite some internal opposition, it is expected the voters will approve the draft.

The outrage among Arab and Turkomen political factions in the country came swiftly. Rejecting the provision in the Kurdish constitution “totally”, Arab members of the Kirkuk provincial council called on national authorities and the “Iraqi people” to “intervene seriously so that everyone knows Kirkuk is a national Iraqi issue and no one can decide on it on their own for their political gains.”

An ethnic flash-point, Kirkuk has witnessed a dramatic rise in violence over the last few weeks. Two bombs in Turkoman and Kurdish parts of the province left hundreds dead and injured signaling a clear determination by insurgent groups to exploit ethnic tensions.

Describing the Kurdish draft constitution as ” in defiance of some of the articles” in the national constitution of Iraq, Mohammed Mehdi al-Bayati, a Turkomen deputy in the Iraqi parliament, told Aswat al-Iraq news agency that “the constitution the Kurdistan parliament passed is a negative message for the stability of Iraq”.

Despite considering the disputed territories part of Kurdish soil, the draft constitution does not call for any forcible takeover of those areas and defers the matter to be settled through an article in Iraq’s constitution. Article 140 of the national constitution addresses longstanding territorial problems between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs and lays down a road map to resolve the issue.

However, non-Kurds believe that the roadmap is devised in a way that will eventually give the control of those areas to Kurds. Disputed areas include large chunks of land scattered through Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces in northern Iraq.

Under former President Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government expelled large numbers of Kurds and Turkomans from those areas in what is commonly referred to as “Arabisation”. The strategic goal was to tilt the demographic balance in favour of the country’s Arab majority in those areas rich with natural resources like oil and gas.

Ironically, as Arab and Turkomen parties accuse Kurds of land-grabbing, critics in Kurdistan say the draft constitution does not take a clear position on the “Kurdish identity” of disputed territories, accusing Kurdish leaders of compromise and equivocation on the issue.

And while Arabs in Baghdad are increasing pressure to force Kurds to back down from their claims to disputed areas, Kurdish leaders appear to be more responsive to criticism from within Kurdistan.

“Kurdistan region’s president will not compromise on a span of Kurdistan’s territory,” the office of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said in a statement.

The Kurds’ dispute with other groups in the country is multi-faceted. One the one hand, it involves territorial rows with neighbouring Arab, both Shia and Sunni, and Turkomen populations. On the other hand, there are deep differences between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government over their respective powers on oil exploration and foreign policy, as well as territory.

In a bid to assert his authority and beef up his nationalistic credentials, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a tough stance toward what he and many in Baghdad see as Kurdish expansionism and overly independent policies. While his Shia-led government has uneasy relations with Sunni Arabs, many allege Maliki is propping up Sunni Arabs in the north in their disputes with Kurds.

Although officially part of Iraq, the Kurdish government signs oil deals with international firms, establishes diplomatic relations with foreign countries, controls a 100,000 strong army and has forces in all disputed areas.

Kurdish leaders dismiss Baghdad’s criticisms, saying their moves are constitutional, and have threatened to secede from Iraq without those powers. In fact, elastic articles in the hastily-written national constitution have given both sides significant room to maneuvre and claim constitutional legitimacy.

With the gap between the views of Kurdish and Iraqi politicians widening, chances of another conflict in Iraq appear to be rising.

“They seem to be on a collision course and the only question is the severity of the collision… No one wants a collision but I can’t see a way to resolve this issue,” Wayne White, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute, told IPS.

Any eruption of violence between Kurds and the Iraqi government will dash U.S. hopes for stability in a country already grappling with bloodshed and a paralysed economy. This has raised the question for many as to what role the U.S. can play to possibly forge a deal between Kurds and Arabs.

“I think because of the increased power of the central government, and the increased perception among Kurds that the U.S. is siding with Sunni Arabs and the central government, and the increased power of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional government), the U.S. is marginalised,” said White, adding that there is a deep distrust between those sides. “The U.S. cannot do that much.”

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