Kurds, Arabs Maneuver Ahead of U.N. Report on N. Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 17, 2009

BAGHDAD, April 16 -- Kurdish and Arab politicians in northern Iraq are preparing for a potentially long and bruising fight over disputed areas as they await the release of U.N. reports expected to propose joint administration of Kirkuk and make a case for the annexation of some districts to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In Kirkuk, the crown jewel of the 300-mile strip of disputed territories, Arab politicians announced over the weekend the creation of a political group that includes Sunni leaders who gained prominence in 2006 and 2007 when, with financial backing from the United States, they took up arms against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in the western part of the country.

The Kurds, meanwhile, have been aggressively collecting signatures in the oil-rich city for a nonbinding petition with which they hope to demonstrate that the majority of Kirkuk's residents want the city annexed to the autonomous Kurdish regional government.

The much-anticipated release of the U.N. reports, expected this month, could open a new chapter in the visceral, decades-long dispute between Arabs and Kurds over Kirkuk and other key cities and villages in northern Iraq.

Many of the urban areas in the disputed territories were predominantly Kurdish until the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein razed hundreds of Kurdish villages, displacing thousands of people. He also provided incentives for Arabs in southern Iraq to move north.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish regional government -- which operates much like a sovereign nation and has its own armed force -- has worked aggressively to restore its influence in several areas that were formerly under Kurdish control. It has spent millions on social services and deployed its militia, the pesh merga, to parts of Nineveh, Diyala and Kirkuk, the three provinces that border the autonomous regional government.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Arab leaders have accused Kurds of encroaching in areas that are under nominal control of the Baghdad government. Maliki in recent months deployed troops loyal to the central government to stem the influence of the Kurdish regional government.

The tension over Kirkuk and other disputed areas, which some Iraqi and U.S. officials believe could escalate into armed conflict, prompted the U.S. military in January to increase its troop level in Kirkuk from a battalion, roughly 900 troops, to a combat brigade of about 3,200 soldiers.

"The threat of civil war remains real, and this threat should not be minimized," said W. Andrew Terrill, a national security professor at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. "Kirkuk is often compared to Jerusalem, where different groups have exceptionally strong emotional attachments and the claims of rival groups are rarely seen as valid."

The debate over control is linked to the still-unresolved question of how Iraq will distribute its oil wealth. Complicating matters, it is coming to a head in a politically charged year during which missteps by candidates over their position on Kirkuk could amount to political suicide.

U.N. officials this week briefed Maliki, a Shiite; President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; and other senior Iraqi leaders on the reports. U.N. officials have refrained from discussing the reports publicly.

Iraqi analysts and politicians in northern Iraq who have discussed the issue with U.N. officials in recent weeks said in interviews that they expect the organization will outline a scenario by which Kirkuk could be administered jointly by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government. Elsewhere, based on an analysis of the region's history, demographics and the outcome of the recent provincial election, the United Nations is expected to suggest that certain districts ought to be administered by the Kurdish regional government.

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