US referees Iraq's troubled Kurdish-Arab fault line
At a flash point for violence, an Army general plays diplomat.
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Governor Raad al-Tamimi, sitting at the mayor's expansive desk, also starts with platitudes to mollify those who charge that Khanaqin is neglected by the government.Skip to next paragraph
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"Khanaqin is the bride of Diyala [Province]" says Mr. Tamimi. "The bride is the best selection." He says that Khanaqin is earmarked even more money that the provincial capital. But Khanaqin must be subject to national laws and security forces under orders from Baghdad.
This town's ambiguous status – mirrored across the "disputed areas," where by one count Kurds have added 7 percent more of Iraq's territory to their own – complicates every issue.
Kurdish forces were sometimes invited in years past to help secure these areas before the new Iraqi Army could deploy. But now as Iraqi security forces are expanding and taking a more proactive role, towns like Khanaqin are torn.
"Terrorism in Diyala will be pursued in Diyala or anywhere as part of the central government's duty," Tamimi tells the group. "Terrorists must be followed wherever they are so that we can be rid of them."
And there are no shortage of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the province. "The surge in Baghdad has pushed all the enemy to the north, and the Anbar Awakening pushed everybody to the east," says Hertling. "So we have a significant amount of Al Qaeda in Iraq [in Diyala Province]."
As the mayor and governor promise renewed cooperation, they also trade barbs. The mayor accuses the central government of neglect; the governor blasts the mayor – who has received death threats and two attempts on his life – for never coming to see him in the provincial capital.
"How many times did I come to see you this year? Three? More? But you never come to see me," says Governor Tamimi. "All I want is for my relationship with you guys to stay strong. There are certain issues that we need to leave to the politicians in Baghdad to solve."
Indeed, though the Kurdish territory has been the quietest since 2003, the standoff in Khanaqin is a reminder of another tinderbox. Most often that concern centers on oil-rich Kirkuk, which both Kurds and Arabs call their own.
"If [Kurds] don't back down on their claims, Iraq will really fall into ethnic conflict," says Hunain al-Qaddo, a parliamentarian from the northern Ninevah Province where Kurds have established themselves well beyond their territorial borders.
"Until our Kurdish brothers realize the dangers of their thrust, I can't be optimistic," says Mr. Qaddo. "If the Kurdish politicians are not pragmatic in their objectives, then they will compromise the security and stability across Iraq."
Preventing that has been one task of the special representative of the UN secretary-general in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura. The only way to overcome the pitfalls of a "hostile referendum and facts on the ground," he says, is to forge a political "grand bargain" that resolves all the issues at once.
Top of the list is clarifying the blend of federal and local government authority. Resolving the 12 "disputed areas" is so sensitive that the UN makes no map of them public. "There is mistrust of everyone's intentions," says Mr. de Mistura.
A key problem is the still-pervasive mind-set instilled by Saddam Hussein. "With him, you agreed or you were dead. So there were no negotiations with give and take."