The Iraqi Kurds, now not only possess their most powerful regional government since the creation of Iraq following World War I (the Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG), but also play a very prominent role in the Iraqi government in Baghdad including the posts of president (Jalal Talabani), foreign minister (Hoshyar Zebari), and several other cabinet positions. The Kurdish position in these two different governments is not always the same. At times the Kurds even play their two separate roles against each other with the KRG frequently (but not always) taking the role of “bad cop,” while their representatives in Baghdad play the role of “good cop.” After a great deal of wrangling, the Kurds managed to maintain their strong position in al-Maliki’s new Baghdad government finally cobbled together in December 2010.
This dual governmental role stood in mark contrast to the situation that existed before the events of 1991 and 2003, when the Kurds were treated as second class citizens and worse. The ultimate question, of course, is for how long this unique Kurdish position of strength will last. Many Arabs still resent the Kurdish claims to autonomy as a challenge to the Arab patrimony and a federal state for the Iraqi Kurds within Iraq as simply a prelude to secession that was forced upon the Arabs at a moment of temporary weakness following the war in 2003. Indeed, most Kurds would quickly opt for independence when they perceive the time as ripe. When will the Iraqi Arabs get their act together and start trying to reduce the Kurds again?
This article will argue that the time for this to happen may have arrived. As the  “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” pointed out in its otherwise largely positive assessment of Iraqi security needs:
Arab-Kurd tensions have [the] potential to derail Iraq’s generally positive security trajectory, including triggering conflict among Iraq’s ethno-sectarian groups. Many of the drivers of Arab-Kurd tensions—disputed territories, revenue sharing and control of oil resources, and integration of peshmerga forces—still need to be worked out, and miscalculations or misperceptions on either side risk an inadvertent escalation of violence.
Although their current role in Baghdad has been a hedge against renewed Arab chauvinism, it is likely that the Kurds will gradually play a reduced role in the future Baghdad governments as the large Arab majority in Iraq increasingly and inevitably reasserts itself.
What can the KRG do to halt this gradual decline in its position? First, one must query whether the Kurdish house itself is in order to meet this impending struggle. The long conflict for ultimate power in Iraqi Kurdistan between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—a contest that led to a bloody civil war between the two as recently as the mid-1990s and even saw Barzani call upon Saddam Hussein for help in 1996—was put on hold by ceding Barzani the presidency of the KRG while Talabani assumed the largely ceremonial presidency of Iraq. Nevertheless, the so-called unified KRG that was announced on May 7, 2006 still remains partially divided along the KDP-PUK schism, especially in regards to its security institutions.
On February 17, 2011, violent demonstrations against the KDP and PUK broke out in Sulaymaniya, lasted for 62 days, and were only forcibly curtailed by the KRG on April 19, 2011. During the first few days at least three protestors were killed and scores wounded. Most of the demonstrators were protesting against corruption, nepotism and the lack of effective services such as jobs and electricity. Intellectuals and journalists also protested against limitations against speech and press as well as daily harassment. Among all there was a deep anger against the Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK family domination over society and government. There were even calls for the resignation of President Massoud Barzani and Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Despite the supposedly unified KRG, the interior, peshmerga, and finance ministries are still partially divided into separate KDP and PUK branches. Also still split are the security and intelligence agencies: the KDP’s Asayesh [Security] and Parastin [Protection] headed by Masrour Barzani (Massoud Barzani’s son) and the PUK’s Asayesh and Dezgay Zanyari [Information Apparatus] headed by Khasrow Gul Mohammad. From 2003 until 2008 Bafel Talabani (Jalal Talabani’s elder son) was in charge of the PUK’s related Counter Terrorism Group. The judiciary was also partisan. Most of the press too was not neutral.
The Iraqi Constitution approved by a hotly contested referendum on October 15, 2005, established a federal structure for Iraq that grants significant powers to the regions. Indeed, for the first time ever most Kurds now think of their government in Irbil, not the one in Baghdad, when the concept of government is broached. The actual division of power between the Iraqi government and the KRG, however, remains in dispute. These contested powers include the ownership of natural resources and the control of the revenues flowing from them, the role of the KRG army or peshmerga (militia), and the final status of Kirkuk.
Dr. Ashti A. Hawrami, the KRG Minister for Natural Resources and a well known former international oil executive, addressed the issue of natural resource ownership in a wide-ranging interview in the KRG capital of Irbil on June 14, 2006. He argued strongly that Article 115 of the new Iraqi Constitution “states the supremacy of regional laws over federal laws, and can be invoked if no agreement is reached on the management of oil and gas resources and the distribution of proceeds.” He also argued that Article 112 of the Constitution only permits the Iraqi Government “an administrative role confined to the handling, i.e. exporting and marketing, of the extracted oil and gas from existing producing fields. . . . The elected authorities of the regions and producing governorates are now entitled to administer and supervise the extraction process; in other words local oilfield managers are answerable to the local authorities.” Hawrami went on to maintain that since the new Constitution was silent on undeveloped fields or any new fields, “the regions and governorates will have all the controls.”
Following Hawrami’s speech, several apparent compromises on a Hydrocarbons law fell through. Nevertheless, in February 2010, Hussain al-Shahristani, the Iraqi Oil Minister and the Kurds’ nemesis in this situation, announced that Iraq expected to resume oil exports from the Kurdistan region “in the near future.” Subsequently, progress has occurred regarding payments of production costs made to the KRG from Baghdad revenues earned from the sale of KRG oil, as well as partial payments for profits to the international oil companies that are producing in Kurdistan. Indeed, the KRG began pumping oil again in February 2011 and by April 2011 was producing 115,000 bpd. However, the fate of the earlier disputed deals between the KRG and foreign companies remained unclear. In other words, although progress had been made, Baghdad still has not recognized the legality of the contracts signed by the KRG. A comprehensive hydrocarbons law remains elusive.
The Current Situation
At the present time the relationship between Irbil and Baghdad is characterized by suspicion, animosity and brinkmanship that threaten the stability of the [Iraqi] state at a far deeper political level. The conflict, which has left a devastating imprint on the country’s twentieth-century history, could cause political paralysis or, worse, precipitate Iraq’s break-up Arab-Kurdish relations remain a tinderbox. As the Baghdad government of al-Maliki grew in strength and confidence, it naturally began to seek to reimpose its authority over the northern Kurdish part of the state. The 2005 constitution that guaranteed real federalism and thus semi-independence for the KRG was now challenged as having been imposed at a moment of weakness. Many (but not all) Shiite and Sunni Arabs now seek to return to what they see as the rightful situation of a more centralized state that will need to alter the constitution. Indeed, this is a position that offers al-Maliki or any Arab successor a strong arguing point as he seeks to rebuild Iraq and end the sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Arabs. Given the inherent demographics and over-all assets of the two sides, there is a sense that time is on Baghdad’s side. The inability to form a new government for more than nine months after the national elections of March 7, 2010, only postponed this situation. If the new al-Maliki government takes hold in 2011, however, the Arab position relative to the Kurds will continue to strengthen.
For the past three years, Barzani and al-Maliki have been locked in a bitter on again/off-again verbal struggle over the situation. During a tense meeting in Baghdad in November 2008, for example, Barzani told al-Maliki “you smell like a dictator” and also declared that the Iraqi prime minister was “playing with fire.” In August 2008, these semantic fireworks nearly resulted in open hostilities over the disputed city of Khanaqin situated in Diyala province some 90 miles north of Baghdad on their de facto internal border often referred to as the “trigger line.” Here the Kurdish peshmerga ignored an ultimatum by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to withdraw within 24 hours. After some very tense brinkmanship, the two sides each withdrew some 15 miles north and south of the city leaving security within Khanaqin to be handled by the police. The two sides have come close to fighting on several subsequent occasions. Only the presence of U.S. troops stationed nearby prevented bloodshed.
Since late January 2010, the United States has been trying to build trust between the two sides by using them along with embedded U.S. troops in joint patrols (called combined security mechanisms or csms) and manning 26 checkpoints together. In a few places they even sleep and eat together. These csms are operating in the three provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh.
Barham Salih, the KRG prime minister, has called these sorts of measures “Band-Aids to build confidence and generate stability.” However, what will happen when the U.S. troops are withdrawn in the near future? Salih has confided that “I think as the Americans are leaving I am very, very concerned.” Others have expressed themselves more strongly. For example, General Turhan Yousef Abdal Rahman, the deputy police chief in Kirkuk, declared that the “the American withdrawal is a deadly mistake. . . . American troops should stay, or there will be civil war.” A Kurdish police commander agreed: “I’m totally confident that the city of Kirkuk will have a civil war within 24 hours after U.S. troops leave. I guarantee it.” Even with the Americans still present, for example, the two side’s dispute over who actually commands the joint patrols. On the other hand, the U.S. troop withdrawal just might convince Baghdad and Irbil to reach an agreement on their internal division of powers including their internal borderline.
Oil-rich and strategically located Kirkuk, of course, represents the center of these Irbil-Baghdad tensions. One study by Anderson and Stansfield has called it “a classic divided city over which people are prepared to fight and die. The numbers of actors involved, resource dimensions, and international involvement add layers of complexity that are matched by few other disputes over territorial ownership.” From a position of initial strength that appeared to be ready to hand Kirkuk to the KRG under the provisions of Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution, the contested city and province now seem the proverbial bridge too far for the Kurds to take. Kirkuk also represents the opposing constitutional positions with the Kurds maintaining that the Iraqi constitution (including Article 140) must be implemented, while Baghdad has become increasingly critical of the constitution in general and particularly Article 140 as being part of a constitution written for a now dated situation.
Ironically, however, many Arabs fall back on the constitution by pointing to Article 142, which implements the promise to the Sunnis to review the document by allowing amendments agreed to by a parliamentary majority to be passed together as one bloc. Indeed an Iraqi Constitutional Review Committee has been at work since the adoption of the constitution in 2005. Maybe its most important work has been to try to define the constitutional definition of federalism as it would be implemented in a manner acceptable to all Iraqi parties.
On February 25, 2011 8500-12,000 peshmergas including crack units of the Zerivani were deployed just west of Kirkuk city. The Arab Political Council and Turkoman Front denounced the Kurdish move and demanded its immediate withdrawal: “It is unconstitutional for Peshmerga forces to be in Kirkuk. [The] Peshmerga can only operate in areas under the control of the Kurdistan regional government. The presence of Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk will create many problems.” A call for a “day of wrath” to protest the peshmerga’s presence was only averted by a police curfew.
On March 3, 2011 Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking through a spokesman, demanded that the KRG withdraw its troops: “These troops were deployed without the permission of the central government and the prime minister has asked them to draw down immediately.” However, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the Minister of Peshmerga Affairs, announced on March 9, 2011 that the Kurdish forces would not withdraw until the situation normalized. He claimed that the Kurds had to protect Kirkuk from al-Qaida, Arab groups, and supporters of Saddam Hussein’s former regime and were acting on the basis of intelligence reports that indicated that these groups had been planning to take over the city during the protests. “Our forces will leave when the troubles and tension end in Kirkuk and the city returns to its normal situation.”
The Kurdish military reaction has raised fears among Arab and Turkoman residents of Kirkuk that the Kurds were seeking to implement Article 140 by force. One Arab politician in Kirkuk, suggested that the KRG deployment of troops was taken as a way to deflect attention from the ongoing protests against it by its own citizens in Sulaymaniya discussed above. A member of the KRG opposition Gorran party agreed that the Kurdish deployment of troops to Kirkuk was a “scenario” created by the ruling KDP of Massoud Barzani and PUK of Jalal Talabani “to prevent Kurdish people from protesting against corruption in Kurdistan. They wanted to shift people’s attention towards Kirkuk.” If so, it would not have been the first time in history that a government in trouble domestically had sought to unite its people on an external adventure!
The results from the most recent Iraqi elections held on March 7, 2010 were somewhat disappointing for the Kurds as they showed Kirkuk evenly divided between them and the city’s Arabs and Turkomans. Such demographics would seem to make it even less likely that Kirkuk might be annexed to the KRG. Arabs have accused the United States of favoring the Kurds in the latest Kirkuki imbroglio, but in truth the scheduled U.S. troop withdrawal by the end of 2011 probably invites further tensions over Kirkuk as the U.S. honest broker stands down. Fortunately, as of this writing, the worst predictions for Kirkuk have not eventuated, but for how much longer can all the involved parties keep dodging this bullet?
How then will ties between the KRG and Baghdad play out? Clearly, their political future remains in doubt. Whether Iraq will remain truly federal as the KRG demands or federal in name only as the Arabs recentralize the state remains to be seen. However, KRG president Massoud Barzani has unequivocally warned: “We will not allow the Kurdish people’s achievements to be wrecked by the Iraqi parliament. Iraq will fall apart if the Iraqi constitution is violated.” In addition, as Stansfield and Anderson, two prominent Western scholars, concluded: “A government founded on Arab nationalism, devoid of Kurdish representation and dedicated to eliminating meaningful Kurdish autonomy in the north, would spell the beginning of the end for the territorial integrity of Iraq.” Some have suggested that—despite the long governmental impasse that followed the national elections of March 7, 2010— time seems to be on the side of Baghdad. Does this mean that the KRG might be tempted to strike before it is too late? So far, the KRG leadership has shown a wisdom and maturity that argues against any such rash action. Violence and even civil war, if they come, are more likely to occur by accident.
A major continuing point of disagreement between Irbil and Baghdad is the right of Baghdad troops to transit and operate within the KRG’s territory. Given their horrific past, the KRG insists upon its right to approve or disapprove any Baghdad deployments. Indeed, Article 104/12 of the KRG’s draft constitution declares that the KRG president may only “allow the entry of federal armed forces . . . to the [KRG] region when needed with the approval of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan provided that their tasks and the place and duration of their presence shall be specified.” Baghdad, of course, takes a contrary position, maintaining that Article 110/2 of the Iraqi Constitution dealing with the exclusive federal powers allows it to deploy its troops anywhere in Iraq for “establishing and managing armed forces to secure the protection and guarantee the security of Iraq’s borders and to defend Iraq.” Although the constitutional disagreement continues, clearly any attempt by Baghdad to deploy its troops in the KRG would be viewed by the latter as a casus belli.
The symbiotic relationship between the Irbil and Baghdad military, however, constitutes an important factor that might prevent the two from falling into actual conflict. For example, US Lt. Colonel Dennis P. Chapman has pointed out that “Peshmerga troops have been converted into Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) units, Iraqi National Guard and Iraqi Army units, Environmental and Forest police, Department of Border Enforcement units, and Police. . . . Probably the largest Peshmerga transformation initiative has been the transfer of large numbers of Kurdish troops from Peshmerga formations into the Iraqi Army.” Baghdad even “has accepted in principle the responsibility for funding the Peshmerga, as memorialized in the Iraqi budget framework laws for 2007 and 2008.” However, the two sides have not yet agreed on any funding formula. Not to be deterred, Irbil still has also asked Baghdad to pay pensions for some 90,000 peshmerga retirees.
Although Chapman writes that “there is a fair amount of suspicion among non-Kurds of Kurdish intentions . . . it appears that Kurdish units in the Iraqi army have demonstrated greater loyalty to Iraq by their actions than many of their Arab counterparts.” Indeed, after his detailed study of the KRG security forces including its Peshmerga (regular army), Lt. Colonel Chapman concluded that “an open breach between the Kurdistan Region and the federal authorities . . . need never occur, given even a modicum of flexibility and restraint on both sides.” For example, “the central Government and the [Kurdish] Region have shown a remarkable ability to defuse (or at least sidestep) potentially explosive issues and to cooperate on many important matters.”
A shaky Iraqi political order currently exists in which the Sunnis have recently begun to participate, extremist sectarian violence constrained, and effective central government instituted. Within this order the Kurds have been major participants. They also have a proven track record of instituting their own successful government, the KRG, protected by some 75,000 peshmerga, increasing acceptance from Turkey, and a tenuous U.S. guarantee of protection, which, however, will become increasingly problematic as U.S. forces begin to withdraw. Nevertheless, despite signs of Arab impatience with the Kurdish gains and continuing demands, there is still a general consensus to accept the Kurdish federal state given the realities of post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq. On the basis of his lengthy experience, for example, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador in Iraq, made just this point in a conference in Washington, D.C. in March 2010. What is required then is a wisdom and maturity that lead both sides to compromise their extreme visions in order to implement a federalism satisfactory to both. The specifics of any over-all solution, however, remain to be determined.