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.

"Our children will kick them out if we can't," he vowed.

With an ear tuned to Iraqi politics, along with the legacies that shape them, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has cultivated those resentments to fashion himself into a nationalist leader. He has staked out an identity as a defender of Iraq's unity and its Arab identity. He has insisted on a strong central government and changes in the constitution that are anathema to Kurds who see that document as their bulwark against an emboldened Baghdad. Since last year, he has dispatched the Iraqi army to the disputed border areas, many of them -- not incidentally -- home to potentially vast reserves of oil and gas.

That has played well in Anbar, where Maliki, a Shiite, has proposed an alliance with Ahmed Abu Risha, perhaps the most powerful Sunni sheik in the province, whose brother led the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq until he was assassinated in September 2007.

"He's someone who wants a united Iraq," Abu Risha said of the prime minister. "Our points of view, our perspectives are very close."

To call Iraqi politics transparent is to suggest Abu Risha's Rolex is imitation. It's not. And the parlor game in Baghdad these days is discerning Maliki's true motivations. Is he the nationalist strongman so many here desire, bent on defending the territorial integrity of Iraq from the reach of Kurdish ambitions? Or is he covertly sectarian, trying to stoke Arab fears to distract from his imposition of Shiite hegemony in Baghdad?

In Anbar province, Alwani insisted that Maliki's tough line on the Kurds was a gambit to gather Arab votes for parliamentary elections in January. Another sheik, Hamid al-Hais, praised Maliki's stand on the Kurds but insisted he must be tougher. To the nods of fellow tribesmen, Hais offered his own solution to Kirkuk, a city contested by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens: "If they try to take it, we wipe it off the face of the map."

Suspicions Among Kurds

There is a suspicion that colors almost every conversation in the Kurdish autonomous region, a majestic stretch of ranges, interspersed with rivers and fertile valleys. It is fostered by a fight with Baghdad that dates to the British era, and reinforced by the massacres Hussein unleashed at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

"Is their policy of procrastination and delay for the sake of [allowing] them to get stronger to impose their will on us?" asked Falah Mustafa Bakir, a Kurdish minister.

Maliki has dispatched two delegations to Irbil, the Kurdish capital, ostensibly to break the deadlock in relations between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish government. But he has not spoken with Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, in a year, a clear sign that their once amiable relationship has fallen apart.

As one official termed it, "there's a lot of poison in the air."

U.S. officials acknowledge that the disputed boundary has become the most pressing issue in a slew of unresolved conflicts in Iraq -- from national reconciliation to an oil law on sharing revenue and managing the country's enormous reserves.

For years, that boundary was known as the Green Line, drawn as Iraqi forces withdrew from northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It served as the border until 2003, when Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, crossed the frontier with U.S. approval. 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.

For months, though, the U.S. Embassy has abdicated the lead role in resolving the border issue to the United Nations, which has made little headway. Timing is bad, too. These days, Kurdish attentions are focused on the results of Saturday's election for a regional president and parliament, in which opposition parties did surprisingly well. Forming a government may take until September. With the campaign for national elections beginning in November, little time is left for real negotiation.

As in Arab Iraq, some are also suspicious of the motivations involved in fanning the conflict.

"Internal consumption," said Muhammad Tofiq, a Kurdish opposition politician. To him, the dispute is a way to divert attention from the corruption and failures of the region's ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "To them, an oil well is more important than Sinjar and Khanaqin," two contested cities.

But old suspicions die hard here, as evidenced by a confrontation between Iraqi army and Kurdish forces that probably would have erupted last month in Makhmur, a disputed town controlled by Kurds, had U.S. forces not been present.

A round of late-night calls by the U.S. military and others averted a clash. "But when will it happen again?" asked Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish prime minister. "There is still the logic of who is powerful and who is weak."

Town of Divided Loyalties

The first question at the checkpoint on the edge of Qaraqosh, the Christian town along the disputed border, was standard. "Where are you coming from?" barked a militiaman in street clothes, armed and paid by a benefactor loyal to the Kurds.

The questions that followed weren't.

"Are you Christian?" he asked. "Are you Kurdish? Are you Arab?"

These days in Qaraqosh, it matters.

Residents seem to resist the idea of being joined to Kurdistan, as the Kurds refer to their autonomous region. Many of the Christians here pronounce a pride in belonging to an ancient community of Mesopotamia. Others resent the heavy-handedness of Kurdish security, which residents say has hauled away scores of people in the past few years to prisons in Irbil and, farther north, in Aqrah.

"When they return," one politician said, "they have to keep their mouth shut."

Qaraqosh is consumed in a claustrophobic conflict over space and borders, a grinding attempt to lay claim -- politically, psychologically and socially -- to everything from the authority of the police to the rebuilding of a church.

The native language of the deputy police chief is Kurdish. So is his loyalty, critics say. His boss speaks Arabic. Members of the city council pledge loyalty to Gov. Nujaifi's Arab-dominated government in Mosul, which provides Qaraqosh meager water and electricity. More generous is the money that has poured in from a benefactor, Sarkis Aghajan, a wealthy Christian who once served as Kurdish finance minister. Credited to him are buses for students, renovations of orphanages and monasteries, and even generators for electricity. Officials say he is behind the militia, too, which numbers 1,200 fighters in Qaraqosh and two other Christian towns.

"We have an order from the state," said Ghadeer Salem, one of the commanders.

Baghdad? he was asked.

"No," he replied. "Kurdistan."

Special correspondent Dlovan Brwari contributed to this report.

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