Worries About A Kurdish-Arab Conflict Move To Fore in Iraq

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 27, 2009

QARAQOSH, Iraq -- Louis Khno is a city councilman whose city is beyond his control. In his barricaded streets are militiamen -- in baseball caps and jeans, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, with the safeties switched off. They answer to someone else. Leaders of his police force give their loyalty to their ethnic brethren -- be they Kurd or Arab. Clergy in the town pledge themselves to the former. Khno and his colleagues to the latter.

"We're far from the conflict, but now we've become the heart of the conflict between Kurds and Arabs," Khno said. "We're now stuck in between them."

Khno called the town "the line of engagement," one stop along an amorphous frontier in northern Iraq shaped by contested history, geography and authority. Dividing the Kurdish autonomous region from the rest of the country, that frontier represents the most combustible fault line in Iraq today, where Arab and Kurd forces may have come to blows last month along hills of harvested wheat. Kurdish officials suggest that another confrontation is inevitable, with halfhearted negotiations already stalled, and U.S. officials acknowledge that only their intervention has prevented bloodshed.

Since 2003, when U.S. forces barreled into Baghdad, toppling Saddam Hussein, inspiring a Shiite revival and unleashing a Sunni insurgency that drew on a communal sense of siege, the war in Iraq has been in large part a sectarian conflict that pitted Sunni Arab against Shiite Arab. That war has subsided, even if bitterness remains.

For months, there were fears that the sectarian battle might reignite, as the United States withdrew its combat forces. Today, that looks less likely. Rather, U.S. officials say, the biggest threat to Iraq in the years ahead is the ethnic conflict, Kurds in the north against the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad, a still-unresolved struggle that has helped shape Iraq's history since the British inherited the land after World War I.

Already, the conflict has redrawn alliances, helping bring a Shiite prime minister into the arms of a powerful Sunni sheik in Anbar province, once the cradle of the insurgency. It has stoked long-standing Kurdish fears of a resurgent government in Baghdad bent on curbing the power of its regional government, which held an election Saturday for a president and new parliament. And it has plunged border towns like Qaraqosh into an increasingly nasty struggle that some fear may end in bloodshed.

"There may not be war. We're tired of wars," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni Arab governor of northern Iraq's Nineveh province. "But there will definitely be clashes and fights here and there."

Animosity in Sunni Anbar

It was not so long ago when talk in Anbar, the sprawling province west of Baghdad, dwelt on lynching Americans, smiting infidels and driving Shiite politicians and their Iranian sponsors from Baghdad. Talk there is anything but subtle.

These days, there is a new refrain.

"The Kurds are most dangerous because they live among us as Iraqi citizens," declared Raad al-Alwani, a blunt-speaking sheik in Ramadi whose fondness for scotch competes with his affection for two $20,000 falcons tethered in his front yard. "They should remember that someday there will be a strong government in Baghdad again."

"In the old days, one policeman would have kicked all the Kurds out," added his cousin, Khalid Abdullah al-Fahad, dragging on a cigarette and sipping tea.

Another cousin, Skander Hussein Mohammed, chimed in.

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