Kurdish Leaders Warn Of Strains With Maliki

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 17, 2009

IRBIL, Iraq, July 16 -- Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and the Iraqi government are closer to war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Kurdish prime minister said Thursday, in a bleak measure of the tension that has risen along what U.S. officials consider the country's most combustible fault line.

In separate interviews, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and the region's president, Massoud Barzani, described a stalemate in attempts to resolve long-standing disputes with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's emboldened government. Had it not been for the presence of the U.S. military in northern Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani said, fighting might have started in the most volatile regions.

The conflict is one of many that still beset Iraq, even as violence subsides and the U.S. military begins a year-long withdrawal of most combat troops from the country. There remains an active sectarian conflict, exacerbated by insurgent groups that seem bent on reigniting Sunni-Shiite carnage. There is also a contest underway in Baghdad to determine the political coalition that will rule the country after next year's elections. But for months, U.S. officials have warned that the ethnic conflict pitting Kurds against Arabs, or more precisely the Kurdish regional government against Maliki's federal government in Baghdad, poses the greatest threat to Iraq's stability and could persist for years.

In an incident June 28 that underscored the trouble, Kurdish residents and militiamen loyal to the Kurdish regional government faced off with an Arab-led Iraqi army unit approaching Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between the troubled northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Kurds believed the unit was trying to enter the town, and for 24 hours, Kurdish leaders, Iraqi officials in Baghdad and the U.S. military negotiated until the Arab-led Iraqi unit was diverted, the Kurdish prime minister said.

The Kurdish militiamen, who are nominally under the authority of the Iraqi army but give their loyalty to the Kurdish regional government, retained control.

"They sent huge forces to be stationed there to control a disputed area, and our message was clear: We will not allow you to do so," the Kurdish prime minister said.

"Our instructions are clear," Massoud Barzani said in a separate interview. Neither the Iraqi army nor the Kurdish militia has "the unilateral right to move into these areas."

U.S. military officials confirmed the incident but offered differing accounts. Asked if the incident was essentially the Kurdish Iraqi army facing down the Arab Iraqi army, Maj. James Rawlinson, a military spokesman in Kirkuk, replied, "Basically."

A spokesman in the Iraqi Defense Ministry blamed the incident on a misunderstanding. He said the army movement was nothing more than a troop rotation. When residents and others saw the Iraqi army unit's arrival, he said, they feared that the government in Baghdad was sending reinforcements. "They turned it into a big issue when it was a simple operation," he said.

The conflict between the government and the Kurdish region is so explosive because it intersects with the most critical disputes that still endanger the country's stability. They include debate over a hydrocarbon law to share revenue and manage Iraq's enormous oil reserves, some of which are located in areas claimed by the Kurdish government; talks to delineate the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions; and efforts to resolve the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city shared by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

Complicating the landscape is the bad blood between two of the key players -- Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, and Maliki, whose stature has grown dramatically amid the restoration of a semblance of calm and his Dawa party's success in provincial elections in January. Although two delegations from Maliki's party have visited Irbil, the Kurdish capital, since the spring, the two men have not spoken in a year, Barzani said.

"Everything is frozen," said Prime Minister Barzani, a nephew of the president. "Nothing is moving." He warned that the deadlock was untenable. "If the problems are not solved and we're not sitting down together, then the risk of military confrontation will emerge," he said.

Both have blamed the other side for provocations, often with justification. Kurdish officials see in Maliki's actions a recurrence of what they believe is arrogance from Baghdad stretching back generations. Maliki's allies accuse Kurdish leaders of overreaching in their territorial ambitions and stubbornness in talks.

"If things remain the way they are between the two parties, without solutions and without abiding by the constitution, then unfortunately everything is possible," said Ezzedine Dawla, a Sunni Arab lawmaker from Mosul, Iraq's most restive city.

Last month's standoff was at least the third that involved the Kurdish militia, known as the pesh merga, reaching into land that had been administered by Baghdad until the U.S.-led invasion. With U.S. approval after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, Kurdish leaders dispatched pesh merga past the frontier. In predominantly Kurdish regions, they sent administrative staff and their personnel, as well. Since last year, Maliki has pushed back, sending the Iraqi army to confront pesh merga in the border town of Khanaqin, which has a Kurdish majority, and deploying thousands more troops in Kirkuk. Fearing tension, the U.S. military has bolstered its presence in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish prime minister said the two sides narrowly avoided bloodshed in Makhmur.

He said the Iraqi army headed toward Makhmur, set in a wind-swept region of rolling wheat fields, with the intention of staying in the town. The troops were stopped by about 2,000 pesh merga in a standoff that lasted through the night. A flurry of phone calls continued into the next morning. The Kurdish prime minister said he stayed awake until 4 a.m. as the talks unfolded. "What does that tell you about the seriousness of the situation?" he asked.

American officials offered two accounts of what happened. Rawlinson, the spokesman in Kirkuk, said a battalion from Iraq's 7th Division was headed to station itself in Makhmur. At the nearby town of Debaga, it was stopped by soldiers of the 2nd Division, which is composed of pesh merga units. The U.S. military was alerted at 2:30 a.m., he said. "It was the middle of the night, and people got tense," Rawlinson said.

Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman in Tikrit, said Iraq's 7th Division was headed to Nineveh province for an upcoming operation. "The movement fed fears and rumors," he said, and at least 30 vehicles and 100 people blocked the road. Calls were made, and the Iraqi army troops stopped on the road, then took another route, "bypassing Makhmur completely to avoid any potential conflict that might have resulted," he said. Rawlinson later said he would defer to Cheng's version.

Prime Minister Barzani saw the incident as more provocation than misunderstanding. He insisted that Iraqi army commanders were still imbued with a "military-style mentality of being the Big Brother to impose their will." He warned that the Iraqi army was biding its time until it became stronger, perhaps with tanks from the United States.

"Then what do you expect from us?" he asked. "We just sit down and wait to see it?" Asked whether the pesh merga had tanks, too, he replied, "Oh, yes. Yes, we do."

Correspondent Nada Bakri in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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