Strip of Iraq 'on the Verge of Exploding'

Tensions between Kurdish forces, above, and Iraq's army have stoked fear just as years of Shiite-Sunni violence wane.
Tensions between Kurdish forces, above, and Iraq's army have stoked fear just as years of Shiite-Sunni violence wane. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
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By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 13, 2008

JALAWLA, Iraq -- Kurdish leaders have expanded their authority over a roughly 300-mile-long swath of territory beyond the borders of their autonomous region in northern Iraq, stationing thousands of soldiers in ethnically mixed areas in what Iraqi Arabs see as an encroachment on their homelands.

The assertion of greater Kurdish control, which has taken hold gradually since the war began and caused tens of thousands of Arabs to flee their homes, is viewed by Iraqi Arab and U.S. officials as a provocative and potentially destabilizing action.

"Quickly moving into those areas to try and change the population and flying KRG flags in areas that are specifically not under the KRG control right now -- that is counterproductive and increases tensions," said Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which administers the autonomous region.

The long-cherished dream of many of the world's 25 million ethnic Kurds is an independent state that encompasses parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All but Iraq adamantly oppose Kurdish autonomy, much less a Kurdish state. Iraqi Kurds continue to insist they are not seeking independence, even as they unilaterally expand the territory they control in Iraq.

The predominantly Arab-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent weeks has sent the Iraqi army to drive Kurdish forces out of some of the lands, ordering Kurdish troops, known as pesh merga, to retreat north of the boundary of the Kurdish autonomous region.

The face-off between the Iraqi army and pesh merga has stoked fears of Arab-Kurdish strife just as Iraqis begin to recover from years of sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

A week-long journey across four provinces that abut the southern boundary of the autonomous region illustrated just how pervasive the Kurdish presence has become. Pesh merga fighters were seen manning 34 checkpoints, most of them proudly flying the Kurdish flag, some as far as 75 miles south of the regional border. Kurds say they have historical claims to the territory, citing then-President Saddam Hussein's use of violence and coercion to drive Kurds from their lands in the 1970s.

Although officials in Washington and Baghdad have focused on the Arab-Kurd conflict in Kirkuk, the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city where more than 100 people have been killed in political violence this year, the animosities between the two ethnic groups fester throughout Nineveh, Tamim, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. Arabs and Kurds in various areas often have unique grievances, confounding efforts to reach an all-encompassing solution.

Kurdish leaders have maintained warm relations with U.S. officials, who have seen the Kurds as allies in the effort to promote democracy and stability in Iraq. The Kurdish region, compared with other parts of the country, is a zone of relative peace and prosperity.

In Jalawla, a majority-Arab town in Diyala province eight miles south of the Kurdish regional boundary, Kurdish authorities have gradually expanded their role over the past year. The pesh merga, the Kurdish police and the Asayesh, the Kurdish intelligence agency, all patrol the region. The Kurdish government provides a larger share of the area's annual budget -- $15 million -- than Iraq's government does, according to the town's Kurdish mayor, who lives north of the Kurdish regional boundary because it is safer.

"Who could argue that we have not already made this area part of the Kurdish regional government?" asked Nihad Ali, acting commander of a 150-person Kurdish detachment now based in Jalawla, at a headquarters that flies the Kurdish flag next door to the fledgling local Arab police force. "Who spent all the money here? Whose martyrs spilled their blood here? These people are totally reliant on the Kurds. We cannot abandon them."

But Arab residents of this town of 70,000 began to chafe over what they described as a campaign to drive them out of their lands. Ahmed Saleh Hennawi al-Nuaimi, an Arab tribal leader in Jalawla and a former army officer under President Saddam Hussein, said the Kurds had imprisoned, kidnapped and killed more than 40 Arabs recently in an attempt to promote "Kurdification," accusations that Kurdish officials reject.

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