The study concludes in part that “unless and until [Iraqi] politicians succeed in addressing the strategic challenges that destabilize the region, a U.S. military presence will be needed in northern Iraq to prevent such a breakdown.”
This reminder of trouble in northern Iraq arrives as Shiite and Sunni elements are continuing to commit violent acts against each other in the southern part of the country, illustrating the problems facing the Baghdad government as it wrestles with the political impact of seeking a residual U.S. combat force to remain in the country after year’s end.
According to the Rand study, conflicts dividing the Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and other elements of the northern population reflect Iraq’s most complex and contentious political challenges.
They involve disputes over provincial boundaries that go back to the Saddam Hussein regime, when the dictator tried to subdue Kurdish opposition by forced relocation of Arabs into the area.
Complicating today’s situation was the movement of Kurds back into the area after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, and Kurds taking military control of even more territory.
There also are deep questions over the status of Kirkuk, the largest city in the area, where a census, long delayed, was supposed to determine who could vote in a referendum on the city’s future. Arabs and Turkmens questioned participation of newly arrived Kurds, and the issue has yet to be resolved.
Increasing the city’s importance is the fact it “sits directly on top of the largest oil fields in the region — making the territory a very lucrative asset,” according to the study. Since the boundary issues remain, there exists a dispute over whether petroleum from these fields comes under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish regional government or that of the central government in Baghdad.
Finally, and perhaps most important today, is the question of area security. There, too, the study finds matters “exacerbated by the existence of parallel Kurdish and Iraqi security institutions.” The two Kurdish political parties have their own military, police and intelligence services. Their soldiers, referred to as the pesh merga, though nominally under Kurdish government control, are in reality affiliated with their separate political parties.
The Arabs, Turkmens and other groups object to Kurdish soldiers trying to provide security in their areas. While some attempts have been made to integrate the pesh merga into the Iraqi army — about 30,000 soldiers are considered to have done so — the Kurds continue to keep others as permanent militia.