US referees Iraq's troubled Kurdish-Arab fault line

At a flash point for violence, an Army general plays diplomat.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Amends: US Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling meets with locals in Khanaqin.
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    Hertling's Way: US Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling (l.) met last week with leaders in Diyala Province to defuse rising Kurdish-Arab tensions.
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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.

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.

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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."

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.

"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."

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