Kurds turn up the heat on Baghdad
DAMASCUS - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan was aimed to test the waters on how loudly and aggressively the Kurds are willing to push their claim for the oil-rich Kirkuk region.
Maliki received a uniform answer from all his interlocutors, that the Kurds want to go until "the curtain falls", which makes dialogue, let alone solutions, between the camps virtually impossible.
Maliki will now have to accustom himself to a confrontation - be it words or bullets - with his compatriots in Iraq. Or he will have to cede Kirkuk. A third option does not exist. And if the Kurds do decide to go full-on with their demands, they will probably work on dethroning the prime minister, by refusing to support his cabinet, or working against him in the parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2010.
Maliki has two factors to consider. Either he appeases the Kurds, and upsets countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Turkey - in addition to his own countrymen. Or he pleases the Kurds, and upsets everybody else.
During Maliki's first visit to the Kurdistan Regional Government since coming to power in 2006, he had talks with newly re-elected Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, two veterans of the Kurdish national movement,
Maliki arrived to the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, approximately 330 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad. All reports of the visit said that both sides "voiced commitment" to solving problems between Iraq and semi-autonomous Kurdistan, through creating and breathing life into joint security and political committees.
Maliki said, "Our meeting was positive and we have agreed to support national unity and the federal system." Photos were all over the Internet, of a smiling Maliki, Barzani and Talabani, seated before the flags of Iraq and Kurdistan. A Kurdish delegation, headed by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, will reportedly soon be heading to Baghdad for follow up talks with the central government.
At first glance, this seems like a success story, not worthy of extensive coverage. A closer look, however, proves the exact opposite.
Last week's elections in Kurdistan raised more than an eyebrow within official Iraqi circles, although the victory of incumbent president Barzani was expected by everybody. Barzani, 63, is the Yasser Arafat of Kurdish politics, a man who mirrors the struggle of his people, and is widely respected, despite his shortcomings and wide accusations of both corruption and nepotism, as the vanguard of Kurdish ambition and independence.
He won the elections with nearly 70% of the vote. A joint list between his Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of President Talabani won nearly 60% of the entire ballots cast. This gave the two parties around 55 seats in the 111-seat parliament. Barzani represents a generation of Kurdish politicians that is fed up with taking orders from Baghdad and dreams of full and unconditional Kurdish autonomy. High on his political agenda these days is the issue of the oil-rich Kirkuk area, which he wants incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan, against the will of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
One of the reason why ordinary Kurds voted for him - although his age makes him less attractive to a young generation of Kurdish voters - is that he has repeatedly promised to bring Kirkuk to what he claims is its rightful owners. Last June, the Kurdish parliament approved a draft constitution legalizing their claims for Kirkuk, which sits on anywhere between 10-40 billion barrels of oil, much to the horror of Maliki.
Barzani has promised his people that he will push for a referendum in Kirkuk, which has been delayed since November 2007, to decide whether the city's inhabitants want to remain part of Iraq, or join Iraqi Kurdistan. Maliki has repeatedly lobbied to postpone the referendum, warning that it could ignite civil war between Arabs and Kurds, and this measure has been supported by both the United Nations and United States.
Heavyweights in the Iraqi political community, like Vice President Tarek Hashemi, Shi'ite Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr and former prime minister Iyad Allawi, are all categorically opposed to granting Kirkuk to the Kurds. One week before Maliki went to Kurdistan, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Baghdad and urged both Arabs and Kurds to solve their problems before US troops withdrew by 2011.
Gates did not mention Kirkuk by name - but clearly it is the only real bottleneck between both camps, since other pending issues, like the future of the Peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) and relations with terrorist groups like the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are negotiable, from a Kurdish position. They are actually the price Kurds are willing to pay to keep Kirkuk.
Barzani recently said that if it were not for US troops in Iraq, his men would have clashed with troops from the Iraqi army long ago over the issue of Kirkuk. In June, Kurdish militias close to Barzani clashed with the Iraqi army in Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between Mosul and Kirkuk. The president made it clear that neither his men nor the Iraqi army had the unilateral right to move into disputed areas claimed by the Kurds. His nephew, the prime minister, explained the incident by claiming that Maliki's men still had "a military style mentality of being the big brother and wanting to impose their will [on Iraqi Kurds]".
Kurdish Iraq, for long considered a success story and a relative haven of calm in the war-torn country, could yet provide Baghdad with its biggest problem.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.