Iraq's Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war

Tribal Sheikh Abdullah al Yawar of the Hadbaa party promises to kick out Kurdish militias from Nineveh province.
Tribal Sheikh Abdullah al Yawar of the Hadbaa party promises to kick out Kurdish militias from Nineveh province. Leila Fadel / MCT

MOSUL, Iraq — At the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of Iraq's Nineveh province, is worried about the future.

Iraq's Jan. 31 provincial elections have been hailed as a sign that the country is putting its violent past behind it, is moving toward democracy and no longer is in need of a large U.S. military force. Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq, however, the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.

Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party with some Kurdish and other members that vowed to retake disputed territory from the Kurdish security forces; halt Kurdish expansion and eject Kurdish militias, won 47 percent of the vote in predominantly Arab Nineveh, according to the preliminary election results. That means the Kurds will lose control of the provincial council.

The provincial elections also cost the Kurds their place as Iraq's kingmakers. Their main ally in advocating a loose federal system of semi-autonomous Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions, the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, lost power in all the southern provinces it once controlled.

Kurdish parties have installed security forces well south of the United Nations Green Line that's delineated Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region since 1991. Now Goran promises to seal the borders of the disputed areas of Nineveh if the central government and provincial forces start pressuring the Kurds to relinquish some of the turf they've seized from Arabs since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship.

"There is coldness in the region, and I am in the middle," said Goran, who's also the head of the KDP in Nineveh. "With al Hadbaa, there will be a problem, and the province will break. . . . If there is pressure on the Kurds, we will stay in our own region and not allow any interference."

Because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki ran on a strong central government platform and America's restraining influence will wane as U.S. troops draw down during the next three years, there may be nothing to stop a Kurdish-Arab war.

"They will actually try to draw a new green line," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "Kurds have been strong since 2003, and now they're not as strong and they've somewhat overreached. The question is: Are they going to concede some things or are they going to fight over this?"

"Violence could happen for sure," Hiltermann said. "Eventually, the strongest is going to win. The question is, who is the strongest? The Kurds have pushed the bridge too far, and they don't have the power to realize it."

In his marble-lined mansion in Rabia, about 50 miles northwest of Mosul, Sheikh Abdullah al Yawar of al Hadbaa said Nineveh's Kurdish-dominated provincial council looked out for the Kurds and no one else. The first order of business, he said, will be to push the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militias, out of Nineveh.

"We will kick out all who work against Iraqi law and the Iraqi constitution," the sheikh said. "If you see a militia here, what will you do? I will ask the Iraqi security forces to help get them out. In government offices, only Iraqi flags should fly, and Iraqi forces from the Iraqi Army should be a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Christians."

Atheel al Najafi, the head of the Hadbaa movement who expects to become Nineveh's governor, said his party's demands include putting the entire province under provincial government control. This would halt the economic aid from the Kurdish region that funds some 400 schools, thousands of teachers and churches, and it would remove KDP soldiers from the region.

Goran said the Kurds won't withdraw from the disputed areas unless the issue of Kurdish autonomy is settled. Last year, central government and Kurdish forces nearly came to blows in Khanaqeen in neighboring Diyala province when Iraqi forces tried to push into that area. Only American intervention prevented them from coming to blows.

If the issue of the Kurds isn't settled, there will always be war, he said. Just before the provincial elections, Maliki deployed forces without informing the provincial government, and non-Kurdish candidates were brought to Baghdad to be schooled on the dangers of the Kurdish issue, he said. Kurds, Goran said, been treated like "traitors."

"Maliki does not believe in federalism," Goran said. "For us, it doesn't matter what the other people want. . . . If Maliki doesn't believe in this, there will be war again."

In Erbil, Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish nationalist Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, said the problem isn't militias or Kurdish expansion. The Kurds, he said, want to reclaim areas of Iraq they believe are theirs. They want a referendum, which the Arabs consider a disgrace.

Arabs "only accept a Kurd when he is a slave and they are the masters," he said. "Centralism failed in Iraq. You cannot have a stronger leader than Saddam Hussein."


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