Is Ethnic Strife Inevitable in Iraq?

Relations between Iraq’s various Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen ethnicities are
going through a new round of complications since a provision in the draft constitution
of the country’s northern Kurdistan region declared a range of disputed areas
part of the historical Kurdish homeland, infuriating non-Kurds in the country.

All this comes against a backdrop of already high ethnic tensions and desperate
U.S. attempts to stabilize Iraq as it prepares for a gradual withdrawal.

The controversial draft constitution passed in late June by Kurdish parliamentarians
in the northern city of Irbil proclaims several key areas such as oil-rich
Kirkuk, Khanaqin, and districts around Mosul part of the "historical-geographical
entity of Iraqi Kurdistan."

Out of 97 lawmakers present at the session, 96 voted in favor of the document.
Officials have said they will soon put the charter to a popular referendum
in the three provinces of Kurdistan. Despite some internal opposition, it is
expected the voters will approve the draft.

The outrage among Arab and Turkmen political factions in the country came
swiftly. Rejecting the provision in the Kurdish constitution "totally,"
Arab members of the Kirkuk provincial council called on national authorities
and the "Iraqi people" to "intervene seriously so that everyone
knows Kirkuk is a national Iraqi issue and no one can decide on it on their
own for their political gains."

An ethnic flashpoint, Kirkuk has witnessed a dramatic rise in violence over
the last few weeks. Two bombs in Turkmen and Kurdish parts of the province
left hundreds dead and injured, signaling a clear determination by insurgent
groups to exploit ethnic tensions.

Describing the Kurdish draft constitution as " in defiance of some of
the articles" in the national constitution of Iraq, Mohammed Mehdi al-Bayati,
a Turkmen deputy in the Iraqi parliament, told Aswat al-Iraq news agency that
"the constitution the Kurdistan parliament passed is a negative message
for the stability of Iraq."

Despite considering the disputed territories part of Kurdish soil, the draft
constitution does not call for any forcible takeover of those areas and defers
the matter to be settled through an article in Iraq’s constitution. Article
140 of the national constitution addresses long-standing territorial problems
between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs and lays down a road map to resolve the issue.

However, non-Kurds believe that the road map is devised in a way that will
eventually give the control of those areas to Kurds. Disputed areas include
large chunks of land scattered through Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala, and Salahaddin
provinces in northern Iraq.

Under former president Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government expelled large
numbers of Kurds and Turkmens from those areas in what is commonly referred
to as "Arabization." The strategic goal was to tilt the demographic
balance in favor of the country’s Arab majority in those areas rich with natural
resources like oil and gas.

Ironically, as Arab and Turkmen parties accuse Kurds of land-grabbing, critics
in Kurdistan say the draft constitution does not take a clear position on the
"Kurdish identity" of disputed territories, accusing Kurdish leaders
of compromise and equivocation on the issue.

And while Arabs in Baghdad are increasing pressure to force Kurds to back
down from their claims to disputed areas, Kurdish leaders appear to be more
responsive to criticism from within Kurdistan.

"Kurdistan region’s president will not compromise on a span of Kurdistan’s
territory," the office of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said in a

The Kurds’ dispute with other groups in the country is multifaceted. One the
one hand, it involves territorial rows with neighboring Arabs, both Shia and
Sunni, and Turkmens. On the other hand, there are deep differences between
the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdish government over their respective
powers on oil exploration and foreign policy, as well as territory.

In a bid to assert his authority and beef up his nationalistic credentials,
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken a tough stance toward what he
and many in Baghdad see as Kurdish expansionism and overly independent policies.
While his Shia-led government has uneasy relations with Sunni Arabs, many allege
Maliki is propping up Sunni Arabs in the north in their disputes with Kurds.

Although officially part of Iraq, the Kurdish government signs oil deals with
international firms, establishes diplomatic relations with foreign countries,
controls a 100,000-strong army, and has forces in all disputed areas.

Kurdish leaders dismiss Baghdad’s criticisms, saying their moves are constitutional,
and have threatened to secede from Iraq without those powers. In fact, elastic
articles in the hastily written national constitution have given both sides
significant room to maneuver and claim constitutional legitimacy.

With the gap between the views of Kurdish and Iraqi politicians widening,
chances of another conflict in Iraq appear to be rising.

"They seem to be on a collision course, and the only question is the
severity of the collision. … No one wants a collision, but I can’t see
a way to resolve this issue," Wayne White, an Iraq expert at the Middle
East Institute, told IPS.

Any eruption of violence between Kurds and the Iraqi government will dash
U.S. hopes for stability in a country already grappling with bloodshed and
a paralyzed economy. This has raised the question for many as to what role
the U.S. can play to possibly forge a deal between Kurds and Arabs.

"I think because of the increased power of the central government, and
the increased perception among Kurds that the U.S. is siding with Sunni Arabs
and the central government, and the increased power of the KRG [Kurdistan regional
government], the U.S. is marginalized," said White, adding that there
is a deep distrust between those sides. "The U.S. cannot do that much."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.