Iraq moves to counter Kurdish power in provinces


BAGHDAD IS reasserting Iraqi sovereignty in three northern non-Kurdish provinces where Kurdish officials, peshmerga militiamen and intelligence agents have operated freely since the US occupation in 2003. Baghdad considers “illegal” such activities outside the autonomous Kurdish region and is determined to re-establish government control over parts of neighbouring Tamim, Nineveh and Dyala provinces.

These provinces have, in addition to Kurds, large numbers of Arabs and Turkomen who do not want to be annexed by the Kurds. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is particularly concerned about Tamim, where 13 per cent of the country’s oil reserves are located. The oil fields and provincial capital, Kirkuk, are claimed by the Kurds.

The process of reasserting Baghdad’s control began last July when Mr Maliki replaced a Kurdish Iraqi army division with a 13,000-strong, 75 per cent Arab force. Aware that this could spark conflict, the US boosted its presence in the north from a battalion to a brigade.

Mr Maliki’s assertiveness has angered Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Kurdish region president Massoud Barzani. Moreover, it has finished off the alliance between Shia Arabs and Kurds which ruled Iraq until recently.

This was bound to happen. Iraqi Kurds and Arabs have different agendas. Iraqi Arabs accept Kurdish autonomy in the Kurdish region but not its expansion by means of annexation of territory from other provinces. Most Iraqi Arabs want a strong central government while Kurds are wary of Baghdad which has suppressed Kurdish separatism since the 1920s.

The Iraqi Kurds’ ultimate objective is independence in “Greater Kurdistan” embracing Kurdish populated areas in Turkey, Iran and Syria. This dream is creating headaches for Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Iraq’s neighbours. Mr Talabani has paid several official visits to Ankara and Tehran. But he has been unable to refute accusations that Iraq’s Kurds are promoting separatism in Turkey and Iran because armed Kurdish militants from the countries are based in the Iraqi Kurdish region.

In Baghdad this week, Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul received a pledge from Mr Talabani that guerrillas from Turkey’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) holed up in the mountains of the Iraqi Kurdish region would lay down their arms and use political means to gain Kurdish rights in Turkey. In exchange, Ankara promised to in- crease the flow of water from Turkey into Iraq, which is short of water. The PKK rejected the deal.

Thus, Kurdish activities outside the Kurdish region and refusal to crack down on dissidents from Turkey and Iran could put Iraqi Kurds on a collision course with Baghdad.

Mr Maliki is in a strong position to curb the Kurds. He has the backing of most Iraqi Arabs, 85 per cent of the population, and the US, which cannot afford an Arab-Kurdish conflict while with- drawing troops from the country. Determined to regain the top job, Mr Maliki is also seeking to demonstrate his strength ahead of December’s parliamentary elections.