US referees Iraq's troubled Kurdish-Arab fault line
At a flash point for violence, an Army general plays diplomat.
Their body language spoke volumes. The Kurdish mayor took another call on his mobile phone, the Shiite provincial governor leafed absentmindedly through a newspaper. They would rather not be seeing each other at all.Skip to next paragraph
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But Khanaqin was the center of a recent face-off between Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces that threatened a much wider conflict, along a 300-mile fault line that divides the Kurdish lands of northern Iraq from the rest of the country.
And US Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling brought these officials together last week, to make peace, deepen ties between this Kurdish enclave and the state, and to temper chances of any future clash with diplomacy.
General Hertling broke the ice between the two with a joke about his last visit, and the thankless task of peacemaking between Kurds and Arabs.
"Everyone said I did bad things when I was here," says the commander of US-led forces in northern Iraq, provoking laughter. "All of the reporters in Baghdad were calling me a lover of the Kurds, and all the newspapers in the Kurdish region were calling me an Arab chauvinist. So for a while I didn't know which way I should go."
Few issues will affect Iraq's future more than the final relationship between the Kurds – whose autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has its own president, ministers, militia, and flag – and the Shiite-run central government in Baghdad.
But this town in Iraq's troubled eastern Diyala Province is 15 miles south of the KRG line, and but one flash point along a swath of "disputed areas" where Kurdish troops and authorities have expanded control beyond their borders.
Iraqi Arabs charge that Kurds are forcing them out of these areas, in the same way that Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" efforts in the 1970s and '80s brutally removed tens of thousands of Kurds.
In August, an Iraqi Army offensive aimed to reclaim some of this territory, while also pushing against Sunni insurgents in Diyala Province. The Iraqi units faced down Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, in nearby Jalawla. Then they moved up to Khanaqin, where tension surged as they set up checkpoints, sometimes directly opposite the peshmerga.
Chances of an immediate shootout eased when US Army Staff Sgt. Dave Schlicher kept decisionmakers on both sides in the mayor's office for nearly five hours, insisting, he says, that they "talk through a solution and not fire on each other at first sight." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified US Army Staff Sgt. Dave Schlicher.]
That earned him the nickname "General Schlicher" among the Iraqis. Then the top brass and senior politicians weighed in.
Today only Kurdish flags fly from the rooftops. A token Iraqi flag does exist in the office of the mayor, who receives funds from both the KRG and the central government through this governor.
But the writ of Baghdad was sufficiently tenuous that General Hertling flew the governor to Khanaqin for this meeting to bolster ties.
"When it comes to ethnicity and to our country, we are proud of both," Kurdish mayor Mohammad Mulla Hassan finally tells the group, letting his calculated disinterest fall away as glasses of sweet tea are poured and stirred. "Khanaqin is a small Iraq … we are part of everybody, all parts of our society."