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.
"We are now subject to two occupations -- one by the Americans and one by the Kurds," said Nuaimi, who claimed the area is 85 to 90 percent Arab, although Kurds estimate the figure is closer to 50 or 60 percent. "The Kurdish one is much worse by far and is driving the people to become terrorists. This area is now on the verge of exploding."
With prodding from angry Arabs such as Nuaimi, the Iraqi army last month ordered the pesh merga's 34th Brigade to withdraw within 24 hours from Jalawla and the surrounding area.
The Kurds initially refused. Kurdish officials said they killed only insurgents and were in the area to protect civilians, not occupy territory. But after high-level political negotiations, the 4,000-member brigade pulled back to the mainly Kurdish city of Khanaqin, about 16 miles south of the Kurdish border. Two weeks later, a suicide bomber targeting Arab police recruits in Jalawla killed at least 28 people, an attack the Kurds blamed on Sunni insurgents, and Arabs blamed on Kurds.
Last week, Kurdish officials also agreed to withdraw the pesh merga from Khanaqin as long as the Iraqi army agreed not to enter.
"We cannot stand by with crossed hands and do nothing in the disputed areas while Kurds are being killed," said Jafar Mustafa Ali, the Kurdish regional government's minister of state for pesh merga affairs. "We will step in as soon as the Iraqi government leaves."
Khanaqin's mayor, Mohammed Mullah Hassan, said the city would remain under Kurdish control even if the troops all departed. "We are all pesh merga now," he said.
In Khanaqin, almost all the street signs and conversation are in Kurdish. Government buildings display the Kurdish flag instead of the Iraqi one and the picture of Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, instead of Maliki. Some Arabs have been required to obtain Kurdish-issued identification cards to enter the city.
"We are not trying to control the area -- we are already controlling the area," said Fuad Hussein, Barzani's chief of staff. "There is a reality on the ground now in disputed areas across Iraq that can't be ignored."
Hussein accused Maliki of trying to seize land that belongs to Kurds. "We have the feeling that there is a hidden agenda here," he said. "They want to drive us from the area. Some of them want to drive the Kurds out of all of Iraq."
Kurdish leaders have agreed to remove pesh merga forces from areas such as Jalawla and Khanaqin to prevent any erosion of their control over a Maryland-size swath of land that makes up about 7 percent of Iraq's territory.
Kurds and Arabs across that area say it is under the authority of Kurds, even in those places without a large pesh merga presence. Even though the ultimate fate of Kirkuk is uncertain, both sides acknowledge that it is run by the Kurds: The governor is a Kurd, the majority of the provincial council is Kurdish, the military leaders of the Iraqi army units in the area are Kurdish, and the secretive Asayesh is said by both sides to have the best intelligence in town.
Many Arabs and Kurds in these areas begin conversations with recitations of their respective narratives of suffering and oppression. For the Kurds, the central villain in their recent history is Saddam Hussein, whose "Arabization" campaign drove tens of thousands of Kurds from their homelands and replaced them with Arabs. Iraqi Arabs in those areas now accuse the Kurds of employing similar tactics.
The question of where to draw the exact boundary of the Kurdish autonomous region is one of the most politically explosive issues in Iraq. The Iraqi constitution called for a reckoning of the competing claims, including a census and a referendum. But the mandated 2007 deadline for the referendum passed, and it is now unclear what will happen.
U.S. and other Western officials, fearing that the issue could imperil the security gains made over the past year, tried to persuade both sides to back a U.N. process to present reports on Kirkuk and other contested areas as part of a strategy to "defuse and deflect the referendum," said Stefan de Mistura, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq. Kirkuk, which the Kurds refer to as "Our Jerusalem" because of their emotional and historical attachment to the city, presents a particular difficulty because it lies atop an estimated 7 percent of the world's oil reserves.
"I am going to be one of the wealthiest men in the world," said Ahmed Hameed al-Obaidi, secretary general of the Arab bloc in Kirkuk. "I would never let the Kurds steal this money by making the city part of their region."
Western officials increasingly believe that a referendum in which residents of individual areas decide whether to join the Kurdish autonomous region will only spark greater conflict. De Mistura said the approach now is to have the leaders of each bloc reach a viable compromise, perhaps to be confirmed later through a straight yes-or-no referendum.
"At the end of the day, what we need is a grand deal, not a piecemeal approach," de Mistura said.
Yet far-reaching compromises seem remote from places such as Sinjar, a ramshackle city on the border with Syria that is ringed by Arab villages but controlled by Kurds. After a coordinated bombing there last year killed hundreds of Yazidis, a religious minority that some consider Kurdish, pesh merga forces tightened their control of the area, according to Arab and Christian residents.
Abdullah Ajeel al-Yawer, an Arab tribal leader near Sinjar, gathered dozens of Arabs from the area in his home on a recent morning. They described how Kurdish forces had driven them from their homes, detained and tortured them in prisons in the Kurdish region and prevented them from launching their own political party.
"They are like the Gestapo," Yawer said. "Their treatment is the same as what Saddam Hussein did."
Sarbest Terwaneshy, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Sinjar and described by U.S. and U.N. officials as the most powerful figure in the region, denied the allegations against the pesh merga and said the fighters were in the area only to provide security.
"If the pesh merga leave, all the people will leave in a huge exodus," he said. "Without the Kurds, the massacre of last year would be repeated tens of times."