A Precarious Peace in Northern Iraq

by Quil Lawrence | published October 1, 2009

For background on the Kurdish parties’ strategic outlook, see Joost Hiltermann, “To Protect or to Project? Iraqi Kurds and Their Future,” Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).

For background on the internal boundary disputes, see Quil Lawrence, “Kurdish Green Line, Turkish Red Line,” Middle East Report Online, March 11, 2005.

On a stifling August afternoon in 2008, just as Iraq was recovering from the worst of its sectarian civil war, the Arab and Kurdish parties allied with the United States came to the edge of an ethnic bloodbath whose consequences for Iraq and the region would have been every bit as frightening. The trouble started when the mayor of Khanaqin, a predominantly Kurdish city in the Diyala province along the Iranian border, received a frantic call from a police station beyond the Alwand River on the west side of town. “They told me that the Iraqi army was on its way,” said the mayor, Muhammad Mula Hassan. “No one had informed me. A minute later we heard that the Iraqi army was surrounding Khanaqin. They said, ‘We’re going to control the area.’ That means we are the enemy?”

Khanaqin had been patrolled by peshmerga, the fighters loyal to Iraq’s two major Kurdish parties, since 2003, when the US military invited them to fill the security vacuum there and elsewhere in the provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah al-Din, all of which have “mixed” populations of Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups. The peshmerga’s redeployment is widely seen as an attempt to extend to the south and west the boundaries of the region federated under the twin parties’ Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The territories that the fighters police outside the KRG’s domain are claimed by the Kurds, who point to provisions in the 2005 Iraqi constitution for referenda to decide the disposition of such “disputed areas.” Baghdad frowns upon the Kurdish claims of additional territory, and earlier in the summer of 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had told the peshmerga to go home to the three northern provinces that are majority-Kurdish. The prime minister had further implied that the peshmerga were an illegal militia that the Iraqi state would bring to heel. For the Kurds, this language prompted memories of the era before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“This is disputed area,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, remembering the events. “I am from Khanaqin. I have seen the Iraqi army killing Kurds as a child. I have seen the Iraqi army destroying everything. The Iraqi army, the old one, was an army against our people. And you send an army that speaks the same slogans?”

According to Gen. Mun‘im Hashim Fahd, the commander of the army unit that ringed Khanaqin that day, he had no orders to uproot the peshmerga. His mission, rather, was to chase insurgents along the shores of Lake Hamrin to the west. There had been deadly bombings attributed to the insurgency in Diyala over the summer. “I had clear orders from the Ministry of Defense not to go into Khanaqin city,” said the bullet-headed general. “I asked, ‘Can I visit the mayor?’ They said, ‘No, it will only cause problems.’”

Instead of talking, both sides hunkered down. Politicians in the KRG’s seat of Erbil sounded the alarm of “ethnic cleansing” and vowed open war to prevent it. The Kurds mobilized the rocket-launching trucks and tanks they had looted from Saddam’s army. Baghdad began to route its own heaviest artillery toward Khanaqin, and Iraq waited, a cannonball away from civil war on another front.

Caught in the middle was Gen. Mark Hertling, then leader of the US forces in the north. As the governments in Baghdad and Erbil hurled threats at each other, the American issued a rather novel threat of his own: If the Kurds and the Iraqi army did not stand down, the US would do nothing. “If there were indicators that there would be a clash between pesh and Iraqi army, I would pull back all my advisers. I would tell all my other forces to return to their [bases]. I wasn’t going to take sides on this, and [they] would be responsible for any bloodshed,” Hertling said he told all concerned. Hertling credited cool-headed commanders on the ground for averting physical clashes. Eventually, a deal was struck allowing Kurdish police to remain in control of Khanaqin, with the peshmerga withdrawing north of the city, where they still sit, glowering southward, just like in the old days.

Inflammatory language from the Kurds accusing Maliki of dictatorial ambitions would become the norm for the next year. Gen. Hertling, for his part, wondered why Khanaqin should be such a high priority for Maliki. Even more curious was Maliki’s refusal to answer his phone throughout the crisis. “We tried to call Prime Minister Maliki,” recalled then KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, Masoud’s nephew. “In the morning they said he’s sleeping. In the afternoon they said he’s fasting. In the evening they said he’s resting.” The younger Barzani finally got an appointment and traveled to Baghdad. But as he approached Maliki’s office inside the Green Zone, one of the guards stiff-armed him at the door. Barzani grabbed the man’s hand and threw him to the floor. A shoving match ensued between the two teams of bodyguards, and the Kurds’ five-year honeymoon with the new Iraq officially ended.

So began a full year of mutual provocations—troop rotations, ethnically targeted bombings and even a Kurdish order to shoot the Arab governor of Mosul on sight. As US diplomats ground their teeth, the elder Barzani and Maliki stubbornly refused to talk directly, in a terrifying game of diplomatic chicken. The game ended, or at least took a timeout, when the two men finally sat down together in August 2009. But both sides are keeping their powder dry in kegs all along what the US military has labeled the “trigger line”—the ever shifting border running through the lands that both the Kurds and Maliki’s government plan will be theirs.

Talking Past One Another

By the fall of 2008, Nouri al-Maliki was ascendant. Though he was originally the compromise candidate of Kurdish and Shi‘i Islamist power brokers, and was thus regarded as feeble, he was now in a position to pose as post-Saddam Iraq’s first nationalist hero. Indeed, he had made aggressive decisions. He had cracked down on sectarian militias in Basra and Baghdad, depending on American soldiers to do so even as he played to Iraqi anger at the US occupation. He had toughened his stance on a timetable for US withdrawal in the talks with the Bush administration about a security framework agreement. The calm spreading across the country surely resulted from a number of factors—Gen. David Petraeus’ counter-insurgency strategy, the Sunni Arab “awakening” that rejected al-Qaeda and Muqtada al-Sadr’s withdrawal to religious study in Iran. But Maliki wanted to take credit for it all. As with past would-be consolidators of power in Baghdad, he thought the winning formula would be to play the Arabs against the Kurds.

Maliki aimed to bolster his Da‘wa Party, then the weaker of the two Shi‘i Islamist groupings in government, in the provincial elections of January 2009, and then carry on to reelection himself in 2010. His timing was perfect. Sectarian violence had subsided, and Iraq’s most urgent dilemmas—the oil law, revenue sharing and disputed internal boundaries—now clearly revolved around the disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad.

In mid-November 2008, Arabs across the country protested against what they called Kurdish expansionism. “Kirkuk is Iraqi!” they shouted, in reference to the “mixed” northern city at the top of the Kurds’ wish list, and so were the rest of the disputed territories. By Article 140 of the 2005 constitution, the final status of these lands—would they be “Kurdish” or “Iraqi”?—was to be decided by referendum. No referendum had been held, and the deadlines for holding one had passed, so officials of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq were laboring to devise a formula for multi-ethnic power sharing in Kirkuk and other areas. For the Kurds, conditioned by history to distrust Arab rulers in Baghdad, it was only reasonable to station peshmerga in these places in the meantime, not just to fight al-Qaeda and associated terrorists and to protect the local (Kurdish) population, but also to embody the Kurdish territorial claims. The Arab demonstrators’ proposed solution, removing peshmerga from the disputed territories and replacing them with tribal “support councils” loyal to Maliki, would have knocked down what the Kurds considered pillars of the Iraqi constitution. Such, indeed, seemed to be Maliki’s agenda.

“A strong federal government must be built which has full responsibility over security, sovereignty and other issues,” Maliki told a Baghdad news conference. “We have in the constitution exclusive federal responsibilities, exclusive provincial responsibilities and common responsibilities, and all other responsibilities are for the provinces. I think this is not right.” Masoud Barzani replied at his own press conference three days later. “The majority of the Iraqi people voted for this constitution. All the Iraqi officials in Baghdad have sworn an oath to uphold this constitution.” The language was anodyne, but the message was troubling: The bargain holding the country together was at risk, and instead of conversing the two most important leaders in Iraq were communicating by smoke signals in the press.

It suited the political needs of both men to talk past one another. Barzani’s promises to defend Kurdish rights played well in the north, but helped Maliki to unite a cross-sectarian bloc behind him in central and southern Iraq. One of the largest pro-“support council” demonstrations was held in the Sunni Arab bastion of Tikrit. Kurdish rhetoric also pushed an important ally in Maliki’s direction: The US increasingly looked to the prime minister, rather than the Kurds, as its ticket out of Iraq. The KRG advertised itself as “the other Iraq,” the place where the Bush administration’s vision for a peaceful and democratic Iraq had actually come true. In reality, Kurdish security forces engaged in as many dirty dealings as anyone else in the disputed territories. Worse, there would be no provincial elections in the KRG provinces in January 2009. The Kurds said they had plans for their own elections later in the year, but, for the White House, the atmospherics were bad: Everyone in Iraq was going to the polls except the people in the three Kurdish provinces and Kirkuk.

Stoking the Coals

For those seeking to tip Iraq back toward Armageddon, the “trigger line” was the logical fulcrum. On December 11, 2008, during the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar, dozens of Arabs from the Hawija district met with representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of Jalal Talabani. Afterwards they went to break bread together at ‘Abdallah Kebab, a popular roadhouse along the highway from Kirkuk to Erbil. A suicide bomber walked into the cafeteria and exploded, killing scores, including several from the peace talks, and wounding about 100 others. The pattern would continue through the next year, with mass-casualty bombings directed at smaller ethnic groups living in the north, such as Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis and Shi‘i Kurds. As if on cue, Kurdish politicians denounced their Arab counterparts, and the Arabs denounced the Kurds, after each of the mass murders. The Kurds blamed Arabs for carrying out the attacks, while Arabs blamed the Kurdish parties for failing to provide adequate security.

Suicide bombers were not the only ones stoking the coals. The Twelfth Division of the Iraqi army redeployed further and further north into disputed territory that had been under de facto Kurdish control since the US invasion, in effect remapping the trigger line. On the day of the provincial elections, January 31, 2009, Iraqi soldiers rolled into the disputed town of Altun Kopri, halfway between Kirkuk and Erbil, announcing that they had come to secure a polling station. As in the Khanaqin standoff, there was no prior warning to the Kurdish police, and guns were loaded and leveled. Again, the US military credited commanders on the ground with keeping their cool, particularly an Arab officer who refused an order from higher-ups to shoot. (The officer was subsequently relieved of his command.)

The US implored both sides to start talking. “That isolation is just not useful. To telegraph your moves is not bad—you know, no sudden, jerky movements?” said Maj. Chris Norrie, a US military spokesman in Kirkuk. After the incident, Norrie continued, the US pushed to place Kurdish liaison officers with the Arab units and vice versa. But Baghdad resisted the idea for months, raising questions for the US about the motives behind the trip into Altun Kopri.

Payback

The turnout in the 2009 provincial elections was lower than in the previous rounds of polling after the fall of Saddam, but it may have been the most effective exercise in democracy. Voters in the south of the country punished the sectarian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which had controlled several municipalities. Maliki and the Da‘wa Party were the primary beneficiaries, but the balloting proved that, at least at the local level, power in post-Saddam Iraq could change hands peacefully.

Many Kurdish observers felt these results put the Kurdish parties to shame. “In Suleimaniya it’s a single-party system of the PUK, and in Erbil it’s a single-party system of the KDP [the Kurdish Democratic Party, headed by Barzani],” said Nawshirwan Mustafa, for years the second-in-command to Jalal Talabani, and increasingly an agitator inside the PUK. Mustafa blasted the Kurdish parties’ plan for rubber-stamp elections, after which they would divide seats in the KRG’s legislative assembly neatly between the two of them. As Talabani’s long-time lieutenant, the notoriously cantankerous Mustafa hardly qualified as the perfect messenger for reform. But his critique struck a chord with thousands of frustrated young Kurds who had bumped against the glass ceiling of nepotism and corruption in the Kurdistan region. Mustafa soon announced his intention to run on an independent slate in the Kurdistan elections scheduled for July.

The KDP and PUK stuck to the notion that Kurdish parties had no time for internal reform with Arab nationalists massing at the gates—particularly the gates to the west in Nineveh province, where the Kurds had been trounced in the January contests. It was a natural readjustment for the majority-Arab province; Kurds had dominated the government there since 2005 thanks only to the widespread Sunni Arab boycott of the elections that year. But the results looked like a backlash. Campaigning on an unapologetically anti-Kurdish platform, an Arab nationalist coalition called al-Hadba won 19 of the seats in the provincial council, leaving the Kurds with only 12.

The Kurds expected they would nevertheless retain a few of the key administrative positions in Nineveh. The al-Hadba coalition thought differently. “They need to respect that the people voted for al-Hadba. Al-Hadba has the majority,” said Sheikh ‘Abdallah ‘Ajil al-Yawir, the leader of the largest faction in the coalition.

In flowing robes and tassels, Yawir led the tribal component of al-Hadba from his palatial estate south of Mosul near the Syrian border, while Athil al-Nujayfi, al-Hadba’s pick for governor, represented Mosul’s former Baathist elites. Yawir rejected the notion of power sharing. “How many states in the United States did not vote for Obama?” he asked in his near perfect English. “They voted for McCain. Can they say, ‘We will not listen to Obama because we have not elected him?’” Yawir said he was happy to accept Kurds into the new Nineveh government—just none of the 12 who had been elected. Yawir called them KDP operatives, intent on chopping the disputed territories off of Nineveh. “There is no future if they keep pushing, ‘This land for me! This land for me!’ It is not a piece of cake! All of Iraq for all the Iraqis,” he said.

On April 12, al-Hadba announced the names of the officers of the new provincial government. They had made no concessions. A Kurd, Dildar Zebari, was named deputy head of the provincial council, but the KDP considered him a long-time collaborator with the central government. His appointment was likely payback, since the previous Nineveh government had been led by an Arab figurehead under the thumb of the KDP’s Khasro Goran, a man loathed by Nineveh’s Arab majority. Goran accepted that he had been voted out, but insisted that the Kurdish parties needed to be included in the government. “That’s the only way we can solve the problems,” said Goran, sitting in the fortified KDP headquarters in Mosul. “If we are not there, how will they solve the problems—by force?”

Again, the “dialogue” proceeded via statements in the press and publicity stunts. Days after announcement of the new government, the Kurdish bloc in the Nineveh provincial council walked out in protest of al-Hadba’s winner-take-all approach. At a news conference in the disputed town of Bashiqa, mayors of majority-Kurdish towns in the province, from Sinjar in the far west to Makhmour in the east, declared their unilateral secession from Nineveh. For most of the towns, this move meant little change in practice; they had already been relying on the KRG for security and most essential services.

On May 8, Gov. Nujayfi of al-Hadba tried his hand at political theater by announcing that he was on his way to a kite flying festival in Bashiqa. Orders came down from Masrour Barzani, the KDP counter-terrorism chief, to the effect that Nujayfi was to be shot on sight if he entered the town. As the governor’s motorcade approached Bashiqa, US Army Col. Gary Volesky choppered in to find it halted amidst yet another standoff between the Iraqi army and the peshmerga, next to a checkpoint that the Americans refer to as “the farmhouse.” Volesky introduced himself to the generals in charge on both sides. As it happened, they knew one another and bore no ill will. The problem was that each was in receipt of orders from his superiors to face down the other. Volesky pointed out that it seemed reasonable for Nujayfi to roam freely around the province he governed, but the KRG orders stood. The US Army again went for broke.

“I said really clearly, ‘What’s your name, and what’s your name?’” Volesky recounted. Why did he want to know? “Because I’m going to go to my headquarters and mention you two generals by name as the ones who instigated this.” Volesky pulled his men out and drove away to watch from a safe distance. Shortly, the governor’s convoy turned around and went home to Mosul. The peshmerga had won the staring contest, but drawing the death threat from the KDP was a propaganda victory for al-Hadba loftier than any kite Nujayfi might have flown in the disputed territories. To the US, the leaders of the Kurds’ “other Iraq” looked like just another gang of warlords.

In May the guns were drawn again when Maliki sent an urgent mission to secure the aging Mosul Dam, which was one car bomb away from unleashing a torrent that would drown the city. He chose to ignore that the peshmerga had been guarding the dam for nearly six years to forestall just such a disaster. US military observers again smoothed things over, and arranged for joint protection of the dam (the ice was broken nicely when the army realized they had set up no supply lines, and the peshmerga began providing them with food and water). In June there was a 24-hour confrontation in the disputed district of Makhmour, which began when an Arab unit of the Iraqi army entered in the middle of the night. This time it was not the peshmerga that turned them around, but an all-Kurdish unit of the same Iraqi army. The Iraqi government declined to comment, and it was left to the US military to explain clumsily that the unit had simply taken a wrong turn on its way to Mosul.

Antagonism in Abeyance

US commanders had for months highlighted ethnic fault lines as the greatest threat to Iraq’s relative calm, but the White House was slow to take action. The new ambassador did not even arrive in Baghdad until four months into President Barack Obama’s term. On Obama’s first visit to Iraq after taking office, dust storms confined him to the US base near the Baghdad airport. That, in any case, was the official story. Sources at the base implied the complication was manmade, coming in part from Maliki’s initial demurral when Obama asked to meet him at the US Embassy instead of the presidential palace.

When the usual meetings were finally arranged at the US Army’s Camp Victory, on the airport road, only Maliki sat with Obama for the full time he had been allotted. The White House team, perhaps ill at ease atop the three-way seesaw that is the Iraqi government, left President Jalal Talabani, a 200-pounder with a bad knee and a heart bypass, waiting outside the room on a stool for more than half an hour. Masoud Barzani fared little better. The KRG president was led to an antechamber that turned out to be a small bedroom strewn with dirty laundry. The White House failed to announce the meeting with Barzani, who had to release a photograph of himself sitting with Obama to prove that he had done so.

It took a full six months for the White House to put a public hand on the tiller. Over the July 4 weekend, Vice President Joe Biden flew to Iraq to symbolize that he had been tasked with oversight of Iraq policy. The news at first encouraged the Kurds, who remembered Biden best for his support of “soft partition,” the idea that Iraq be divided administratively into three regions, one Kurdish, one “Sunni” and one “Shi‘i.” That notion had vanished conspicuously from Biden’s repertoire after he became Obama’s running mate, and now he bore a message of tough love: There would be no second “surge” in Iraq if sectarian or ethnic violence returned to its former levels. The American visitor was again plagued by bad weather, this time a truly vicious dust storm that prevented Biden from making a scheduled trip to meet with Barzani in Erbil. Still, he implied that he understood the dynamics of the north. “I’ve known the Kurdish leaders…for as long as six years and the bottom line is that I think that they know I know them,” the vice president said as his plane left Baghdad.

When Biden phoned Barzani to apologize for missing the meeting, there were new provocations to discuss. Barzani had railroaded the KRG assembly into approving a regional constitution substantially different from the draft that had been in circulation for years. The document angered nearly everyone. Not only did it stake claims to the absolute maximum area of disputed territory, but it also expanded Barzani’s presidential powers considerably beyond those of genuinely republican systems. Barzani had scheduled a region-wide vote to ratify the document on July 25, on the same day as the Kurdish parliamentary elections. With outrage building in Baghdad, as well as among Kurds opposed to the KRG constitution, Biden asked Barzani to delay the ratification. Barzani acquiesced in his patron’s wishes, but too late to stave off a challenge to the rule of the twin Kurdish parties. On July 25, the KDP-PUK coalition lost several of its seats in the assembly to the new opposition movement.

Soon afterward, the swords were sheathed in Erbil and Baghdad. Only weeks after declaring the two sides closer than ever to open war, Barzani hosted Maliki at Lake Dukan on August 2. The two men agreed to end the year of mutual silent treatment and to appoint high-level envoys to continue discussions in the Iraqi capital.

Maliki casually explained away the 12 months of tension. “Differences of opinion are very normal because we are building a state on the ruins of dictatorship,” he said, next to a smiling Barzani. “I think we largely agree, and if there are disputes, they are small.” As if to underscore his words, Maliki next made a high-profile visit to Halabja, a town synonymous with Saddam Hussein’s poison gas campaign against Kurdistan in the late 1980s. For the time being, the prime minister’s strategy of uniting Iraqi Arabs by antagonizing the Kurds is in abeyance. But the two sides are no closer to resolution of the political conflicts that brought them to the brink of a shooting war, and the elections coming up in January could just as easily pit them against one another as bring them into alliance. In the interim, an obvious way to avoid deadly misunderstandings is creeping forward. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in the Iraq theater, has proposed that combined units of peshmerga, Iraqi soldiers and US facilitators jointly patrol the disputed territories. Tellingly, Prime Minister al-Maliki felt compelled to reject the proposal at first, perhaps since the idea came from the US and because it was so quickly embraced by the Kurds. A top Maliki adviser now says the patrols may start soon.

Still, it is hard to escape the feeling that neither side’s heart is in the truce. At the jointly guarded Mosul Dam on September 24, the US Army orchestrated a ceremony thanking the peshmerga for keeping watch since 2004. But very few of the Arab soldiers cared to attend, and the Iraqi army commander in Nineveh, Gen. Hasan Karim ‘Abbas, found an excuse to be out of town. His counterpart, Gen. Aziz Waysi of the Zerivan peshmerga brigade, summed up the sentiments that may endure when, in ten months’ time, US combat troops depart. “They think all Kurds want to take part of Iraq and separate,” said Waysi, “and I think they want to kill all of us.”

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