Baghdad-Erbil Conflict Frozen Because of Talabani's Absence

With Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Germany for medical treatment, the regional conflict between Erbil and Baghdad has been suspended, not solved, writes Vicken Sheterian. 

al-monitor Students inspect a damaged house after a bomb attack in Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, Dec. 17, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

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peshmerga, kurdistan

Dec 27, 2012

In November, the Kirkuk dispute was about to explode. The central  authorities in Baghdad had formed a new military unit dubbed the Tigris Operations Command, which was headed by Gen. Abdul Amir al-Zaidi. It went as far as to send ground forces and tanks to the south of Kirkuk, sparking panic among Iraq’s Kurdish population. This move prompted the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, to order the deployment of the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish military units in and around the region of Ad-Doz. The limited battles which took place between the two forces claimed the life of one person, and involved a series of attacks. It is therefore clear that the whole region was on the edge of ignition.

In Erbil, the capital of the KRG, there were two types of reactions to what was considered an escalation on the part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is allegedly trying to establish a central authority structure in Iraq now that the U.S. occupation is over. For a large number of people in Erbil, Maliki’s move was linked to the elections at the time, and with the fact that he sought to win the support of the Arab population in northern Iraq, especially the residents of the disputed territories stretching from the north of Mosul to Kirkuk, including the governorates of Salah al-Din and Diyala. But the citizens of Erbil’s second reaction was a little deeper: some recalled the multiple massacres that have taken place in the past, the destruction of Kurdish villages and the mass deportations.

The threats made by the Iraqi central government created a sense of solidarity among the Kurds. In fact, the two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — led by Barzani — and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — led by Jalal Talabani — united against what they considered to be hostile moves taken by Baghdad. Even the PKK fighters in the Kandil Mountains issued a statement expressing their solidarity with the KRG. Meanwhile, Baghdad’s pressure reinforced Barzani's leadership but weakened Talabani and his party, the PUK. In fact, not only did Talabani prepare his policy in close cooperation with Maliki and Tehran, but the Iraqi army was even deployed in areas that the PUK used as a fortress.

The disputed territories are the legacy of the Baathist regime that ruled Iraq over three decades. In the mid-1970’s, Saddam Hussein imposed a racist policy aimed at "Arabizing" the Kirkuk province. He forced non-Arab ethnic groups, including Kurds and some Turkmen, Assyrians and Shabak people, to emigrate. Then he filled the emptied areas with Arab populations from southern Iraq. The idea behind this move was to create an Arab majority in these oil-rich areas so that they would not fall under the control of an independent Kurdish entity in any future referendums. As a result, about half a million Kurds in Iraq were deported from their territories and sent to the northern mountainous regions.

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga sought to control the disputed territories. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was passed in 2005, stipulates three steps for the resolution of the issue. The first step is to “normalize” the situation, i.e. encourage Arab settlers to return to their native lands through financial incentives in order to allow the original Kurdish population to return. The second step is to take a census of the population. The third step is to hold a referendum on the fate of the territories.

Personal dispute

The disputed territories are no longer the only source of tension between Baghdad and Erbil but are rather a major factor contributing to this tension. Erbil is putting pressure on Baghdad to integrate the Peshmerga forces, which are deemed part of the national defense system, into the budget of the ministry of defense and provide them with modern weapons. However, Baghdad has responded that the Peshmerga forces should be under the authority of the central command, and that they should not act as an independent military force.

Moreover, Baghdad insists on the need to retrieve the heavy weapons, such as tanks and artillery, which were seized by the Kurdish fighters from Saddam Hussein's defeated army. Add to this oil deal revenues and their distribution in the budget, which is another source of friction. In fact, Kurdistan’s share was 17% of the total budget of the Iraqi state, which helped it prosper. It became the safest area in Iraq. However, Baghdad wants all of the domestic oil production revenues to be pumped into the central budget. Moreover, it was enraged by the fact that the Kurdish regional government signed oil deals with foreign companies to export oil via Turkey.

Furthermore, the two parties — Baghdad and Erbil — occupy two opposing positions in the polarized political arena of the Middle East. Maliki's government falls under the central Tehran-Damascus axis, whereas Erbil falls within the orbit of Turkey's coalition with Arab states. Therefore, the two parties support two divergent parties in the Syrian conflict, which increases the tension between them.

The increasing armament of the Iraqi army sparks panic in the hearts of Kurdish leaders. In Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki is seeking to strengthen his positions and rebuild the Iraqi army while insisting on the need to buy sophisticated military equipment from the U.S. and Russia. Moreover, Iraq ordered 36 F-16 fighter jets for a total of $10 billion from the U.S. These are expected to be delivered in 2013.

The arms deal worth $4.2 billion between Iraq and Russia seems to have been suspended after the corruption scandal. Nevertheless, Maliki has insisted that the Iraqi army needs modern weaponry and has pushed for a new deal to be concluded with Russia. It is clear that the Kurdish side is worried by these developments.

The personal rivalry that has emerged between Maliki and Barzani will pose additional problems for future attempts to resolve the conflict in the long term. Barzani supported Maliki in the 2006 elections. After that, the tension between the two men increased, reaching its apogee when Barzani assumed a key role in the parliamentary attempts to tarnish Maliki’s reputation. Then, when an arrest warrant was issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi by the authorities in Baghdad, he fled to Erbil before settling in Turkey.

A difficult conflict

If the Kurdish political parties failed to make any progress in resolving the issue of the disputed areas during the height of their power when their U.S. allies were still present on the ground, then it is difficult to see how they will be able to move forward now. Seven years have passed and the situation has not been normalized. Kurdish political parties with their military wings have control over local administrations on the ground. Meanwhile, there is the military presence of the Iraqi army. Under the U.S.-led occupation, the U.S. Army contributed to establishing a balance between the two sides in coordinating the troop’s movements. Now a year has passed since the departure of U.S. troops, and no solution has been reached on this dispute or the mechanisms within the conflict.

It is strange that the pressure exerted by Baghdad did not leave any other option but for the KRG to head north, toward Turkey. Ankara strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, fearing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq. It even closed its territory to U.S. troops, who would have used it as a launching pad to enter Iraq.

After nearly a decade, Ankara has made a 180-degree turnaround in its policy. It had to accept the fact that the KRG exists, which is considered now a key economic partner. Moreover, Turkish companies are carrying out most of the construction work in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, and both sides cooperate to transport the oil produced in the KRG to Turkey. Furthermore, the KRG is planning to establish future projects to export oil and gas through Turkey. Most importantly, Ankara has replaced the U.S. in defending Iraqi Kurds against any potential military threats from Baghdad.

Whatever the new regional balance of power is, the Iraqi internal logic requires Baghdad’s strength to be increased a decade after the invasion and occupation. However, it is regrettable to see that the military threat is being used once again to restructure relations between Baghdad and Erbil, given the decades of the former regime’s repression that led to genocidal policies in Anfal.

There was a need to hold rounds of negotiations in order to calm down the situation and Talabani no doubt succeeded in reaching an agreement before his health condition suddenly deteriorated. This agreement seems to suspend the confrontation at the moment instead of solving it.

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