Land Dispute Between Arabs, Kurds Simmers in Iraq

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 2009

BASHIKA, Iraq -- On a sunny day last week, a group of young Arabs from northern Iraq bundled up their colorful kites for an annual festival and headed to Mount Maqloub, where a gentle wind waited to lift their handiwork across a clear sky.

By afternoon, they had reached the town of Bashika, perched on the mountainside and home to the tomb of Saint Matthew, revered here for his healing miracles. But throngs of predominantly Kurdish residents of the town, along a strip of disputed land claimed by Kurds as well as Arabs, awaited them with a detachment of the Kurdish government militia known as the pesh merga. No one would pass, they told the Iraqi Arabs.

The new Arab governor of Nineveh province followed. To his chagrin, he, too, was ordered to leave. He demanded that his lieutenants in Mosul, the provincial capital, dispatch armed forces to back him up. His men rebuffed him.

"I am the governor; they should follow my orders," Atheel al-Nujaifi said in a telephone interview. "But they didn't."

For a few frantic minutes, Iraq's most dangerous fault line came perilously close to becoming a battlefield. As with another standoff last fall between the pesh merga and the Iraqi army in the dusty border town of Khanaqin, Bashika has emerged as a flash point in a growing test of wills over who will control land claimed by Arabs and the Kurdish autonomous government in the north of Iraq that many fear may be resolved only through violence.

After the standoff, Nujaifi hurried to Baghdad, where he met Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has remained quiet about the dispute, though it has created controversy in Iraq's parliament. Neither the governor and his Arab allies in Nineveh nor his Kurdish opponents consider the matter resolved.

"There would have been blood if they let him enter," Kurdish legislator Ahlam Mohammad said on the sidelines of a parliamentary session Saturday. "The pesh merga was worried about his life. Had he entered, he would have been killed."

"This is unacceptable," Nujaifi said. "These actions are tantamount to terrorism, violate the law and must be addressed by any means."

For U.S. officials, Mosul and the province rival even Kirkuk, the long-disputed oil-rich city along the same frontier, in volatility. Adding to the danger, the conflict has played out against the backdrop of a resilient insurgency that has made Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris, Iraq's most dangerous city.

Nineveh was under Kurdish control until provincial elections in January, when Nujaifi's Arab nationalist list, known as al-Hadba-a, won a majority of seats. When the party formed the council, its members assumed key positions in the province, leading the Kurds to walk out in protest. Bashika is one of a string of Kurdish towns and villages that declared they would no longer abide by Nujaifi's authority.

In the contested region, running along a crescent in northwestern Nineveh, offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two main parties of the Kurdish autonomous government, have sprouted in almost every village in the four years of Kurdish rule. Party flags, along with the Kurdish flag showing a sun emblazoned on bands of red, white and green, fly from rooftops of most buildings. Together, the two parties control a variety of functions, including security, intelligence gathering and issuance of motor vehicle license plates. Mail from the Arab-controlled provincial council is often sent back, unopened, Kurdish officials said. Orders are ignored.

"They control everything," said Aaed Khalil, 51, who owns a small grocery store in Bashika, where squat houses line roads that have potholes filled with stagnant water. "You need the pesh merga's approval to do anything, no matter how insignificant it is."

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