Friday, November 5, 2010

Barzani Is Doing Everything Possible To Annex Kirkuk

By Jassim Al-Azzawi
This comment was published in The Gulf News on 6/11/2010

The steady rise of Kurdish power in Iraq in the last two decades has increased regional concerns and confounded Iraqis across the political spectrum. With the fall of Saddam Hussain's regime, the Kurds have emerged as kingmakers; their parliamentary swing bloc has become indispensable to forming governments and passing crucial bills and their regional capital, Irbil, has become a magnet for party political bosses who visit to pay homage and seek support.

The extraordinary rise in Kurdish fortune is the direct result of Kurdish unity, Baghdad's disintegration — both in political and military terms — and vital American support given to the Kurds at crucial junctures in their struggle for power and prominence. The northern no-fly zone, imposed by the US immediately after the first Gulf War in 1991, and the invasion of Iraq have given the Kurds the freedom and power to prosper, expand their influence throughout government institutions and create fait accompli on the ground.

"The Kurds feel they have the legitimacy to expand their influence and extract greater advantage. They are practising realpolitik," says Dr Ali Alawi, an Iraq expert who also served as defence and finance minister in 2004-2005. Kurdish ambition seems relentless and shows no signs of stopping at securing a semi-independent region composed of the three Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Sulaimania and Dhook. While Iraqi Arabs were murdering each other in a horrendous civil war the Kurds were busy extending their hegemony to oil-rich Kirkuk, Diyala and Mosul, and creating the so-called "disputed areas".

But is this unchecked power expansion sustainable? Under what future circumstances would the Iraqi army challenge the Kurdish forces? The humiliation suffered by the Iraqi army at the hands of Peshmerga forces in Mosul, Kirkuk and Diyala has provoked calls by Iraqi nationalists to put an end to this degradation. And despite disingenuous denials by Kurdish and Arab politicians that future confrontation between Baghdad and Arbil is impossible, events on the ground paint a different picture. When Washington announced the sale of advanced US fighter jets to modernise the Iraqi air force, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament Adnan Al Mufti blasted the deal and said the planes would be used against the Kurds. In 2008 US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker had to personally intervene to avert a major military clash between Peshmerga forces and Iraq's Third Army on the outskirts of the city of Khanaqeen. The Third Army was sent by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to answer calls for help by the Arab and Turkmen inhabitants of Khanaqeen protesting Kurdish oppression.

The Kurds perceive Baghdad's current weakness as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve unchallenged Kurdish power in Iraq and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is determined to extract all possible concessions, whether through political bargains or brute military force, before Baghdad regains its balance and determination to reasserts its central role. "Resistance by those who have been given the short end of the stick to form a countervailing force, without the backing of Baghdad, is not imminent," says Alawi.

Barzani's eyes are fixed on Kirkuk as the ultimate prize. To achieve that, the Kurds have presented the three main political factions with a list of 19 thorny demands in return for their support to form a new government. It is hard to see, however, how party leaders will be able to keep their coalitions intact if they succumb to Kurdish dictates. Even if they agree to oblige the Kurds, will the new nationalist parliament agree to play along?

Darkening clouds

Today, the Kurds enjoy unchallenged influence in Kirkuk. They control the security and economic life of the city, to the bitter resentment of its Turkmen and Arab inhabitants. Anger, cries of oppression and charges of torture, killings and kidnappings committed by Peshmerga forces have become a staple diet of the city's political life. These accusations are resonating in Baghdad, especially among politicians who perceive Kurdish actions as confrontational and thwarting efforts to achieve Iraq's holy grail of national reconciliation.

"The Kurds are facing a moment of crisis and feel trapped. They've overplayed their hands over Kirkuk and oil. They produce oil but cannot sell it," says George Joffe, a lecturer at Cambridge University. "They've become extremely dependent on Turkey's economic investment. Now they realise they cannot achieve independence and that is why they are trying to play the role of mediators and not kingmakers."

Yet, despite this explosive situation, Arab political leaders remain silent because they know they are currently not in a position to challenge Barzani and his fierce Peshmerga forces. The Iraqi army is still very weak and it will take several years of modernisation and training to regain its former strength. A modern Iraqi air force is also several years away.

This deteriorating situation has the hallmark of a major future military confrontation and may drive the entire country into an all out north-south war. That eventuality is perhaps a decade away, if the current situation is not reversed in time. A war over Kirkuk may become Barzani's Waterloo.

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