I'm just back from Boston, and in no condition to write anything... especially with the beginning of the fall semester this week. But a couple of friends seem ready to step up to the plate. Up first: Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group, who is one of the very best analysts of Iraq. He gave me permission to post this brief commentary which he originally sent to a private list-serve, which I'm delighted to do. He's responding to an inflammatory statement by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, that the Kurds would annex Kirkuk if Article 140 (the referendum on Kirkuk's status) was not soon implemented. I wonder if the reported replacement of Zebari with Rubaie on the negotiating team has anything to do with this?
Guest Post: The Kurds have seen the future and they don't like it.
The Kurds have seen the future, and they don't like it. The Iraqi army's campaign in Diyala, ostensibly directed against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has turned against Maliki's ruling coalition partner, the Kurds, who control parts of the governorate they consider historically part of Kurdistan, especially Khanaqin. The Kurds now fear that if they cede ground in Diyala (as they already have: in Jalawla, Sa'diya and Qara Tepe), they will be pushed back in areas where it really matters: in Mosul and especially in Kirkuk. Hence Barzani's interview in Al-Sharq al-Awsat on August 30.
The threats Barzani makes in the interview are not new. When I was in
Kurdistan in June, Kurdish officials were making explicit threats that
if the Maliki government would not implement Art. 140 on the disputed
territories, Kurdish officials and lawmakers in Baghdad would block
progress on critical legislation, such as the hydrocarbons law, the
constitution review and, most recently, the provincial elections law.
This threat also was not new; my organization, Crisis Group, discussed
the consequences of what had clearly become the Kurds' strategy of
getting around the Maliki government's reluctance to implement Art. 140
in a report released at the end of April, After the Surge II: The Need
for a New Political Strategy, pp. 26-28, at http://www.crisisgroup.org/
In addition, when the provincial powers law was passed over a Kurdish walk-out in the council of representatives in July, the Kirkuk governorate council, on which the Kurds hold a majority of seats (26 out of 41), passed a decision to request a local referendum to have Kirkuk join the Kurdistan region, under the October 2006 Law on the Formation of Regions. Under that law, "A region shall be created by referendum. A request must be submitted in one of the following ways: 1st: A request submitted by a third of the members of the governorate council, set up according to the constitution, in each of the governorates intending to form a region..."
In other words, this is a ploy to get around Art. 140. But take note of the phrase "set up according to the constitution". The current provincial councils were elected in January 2005, and were therefore not established according to the constitution. The Kirkuk council is not authorized to make such a move; the Kurds know it, and Barzani's threat is therefore merely a bluff (or a gasp of desperation). The fact remains that there is no legal/institutional way to attach Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region without the active participation of the federal government, which the Kurds, who make part of it but in which they constitute a minority, will not get.
Now, in an embarrassing setback, the Kurds have had to accept the Iraqi army's presence in Diyala subdistricts but not yet in the district of Khanaqin, which to them is a red line. The army did enter Khanaqin but has not been able to consolidate its positions; violence may ensue if this conflict is not mediated. It would not make any sense for the Kurds to surrender Khanaqin, which is overwhelmingly Kurdish. Were they to do so, the current leadership in Erbil might not survive politically. However, compromises might be possible, such as a strictly symbolic Iraqi army presence, the presence of Kurdish forces in uniforms of the Iraqi army, or a special Iraqi army brigade consisting of Kurds and Arabs and under joint GOI/KRG control (or any number of variations).
What is clear is that Maliki has capitalized on his enhanced standing in American eyes to push back his allies the Kurds and assert Iraqi sovereignty in all of Iraq, including in the disputed territories (not yet the Kurdistan region, and I don't expect that to happen; that would be war). His logic is impeccable. But the Kurds, who rushed into these places in April 2003 and have gradually extended their control over them institutionally and politically, are resisting these moves every step of the way. They appear to have withdrawn their peshmergas from the aforementioned subdistricts for now, but their security agencies (asa'esh) remain. And they are organizing demonstrations against the government's moves.
Note: When Kurdish media report joint action by "Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen", these invariably are Kurdish demonstrations with a sprinkling of pro-KRG Arabs and Turkmens. You can find ethnic cross-overs everywhere in the disputed territories (and why not?), but those willing to do the Kurds' bidding are not well regarded within their own ethnic group, given the stakes. This is particularly evident in the case of the Kurds' electoral list in Kirkuk, the Kirkuk Brotherhood List (a few sisters were allowed in as well), which has a token Turkman, a token Arab and a token Chaldean, and which the Kurds expressly did not call the Kurdish list for that reason.
The feared resurgence of a strong central Arab-dominated government appears to be occurring much earlier than the Kurds expected. We now need to watch what the Kurds will do in Baghdad to extract the maximum out of a bad hand.