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Kurdistan: Why it could spark new front in Iraq war

The region, which has increasingly been at odds with Baghdad, holds elections Saturday for a new regional government.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 24, 2009

Flames rise from a pipeline in Kirkuk, an oil-rich city at the heart of Arab-Kurd tensions. A referendum on whether the city should be part of Kurdistan has been delayed by an ethnic-Arab faction in the Iraqi parliament.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters


Mosul, Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan is wrapping up an unusually free-wheeling election campaign that is likely to shift, if not overturn, the political order of this semi-autonomous region when the votes are cast on Saturday.

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But amid the calls for change and allegations of nepotism and corruption, Kurdistan's politicians do agree on one issue: The desire for the region's borders to be extended into the oil-rich area around Kirkuk – an issue that was supposed to be put to a referendum in December 2007, but was delayed by an ethnic-Arab faction in the Iraqi parliament.

As the American combat role in Iraq diminishes, one of the major tasks for the US has become trying to prevent a flare-up of tensions between Arabs and Kurds, centered around the land claims, which some fear could ignite a new front in the war in Iraq.

Recent incidents, including a confrontation at the Mosul dam between Kurdish forces and their Iraqi Army counterparts, raised fears that the simmering tension could escalate as both sides stake their claims ahead of national elections near the end of the year.

Huge amounts of money and power at stake

The US military has been trying to help build trust between Kurdish and Iraqi Army commanders and political leaders on the ground, including informing each other of troop movements, sharing intelligence, and creating joint command posts.

That has had some success. But with huge amounts of money and power at stake, the problem is a much wider one.

"It's the most dangerous course of action for Iraq that if the Arab-Kurd issues are not resolved peacefully they will dissolve into armed conflict and that is a very real possibility," says Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of US forces in seven northern Iraqi provinces.

At issue is a 300-mile arc of disputed territory that the Kurdish regional government believes should be under its control but is within the borders of territory administered by the central government. Almost all of those areas are along the "Green Line" – the de facto border that has divided Iraqi Kurdistan from central government territory since the Kurds broke away after the 1991 Gulf War.

Kurds, feeling betrayed, warn war could break out

The issue of the Kurdish-Arab division of power and resources is a broad one, but centers around Kirkuk, the disputed city at the heart of the northern oil fields. Kirkuk's fate is tied up in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which would allow Kurds expelled by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s to be able to return, as well as a census and a referendum to decide whether the city should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan or an independent province. Since being blocked in the Iraqi parliament, the referendum has been stuck in Iraq's constitutional court.

The article is part of a 2005 constitution drafted under US auspices that deferred some of Iraq's most fundamental decisions and has been called a ticking time bomb.

"Expect war," Kurdish leader Khasro Ghoran says bluntly. "For 80 years we have been shedding blood for these areas and we're not going to give up. If Article 140 is not implemented, there will be war."

Mr. Goran, who was deputy provincial governor until provincial elections in January broke the Kurdish hold on power in Mosul, is more publicly hard-line than most. But he exemplifies the depth of resentment between Iraqi Arabs who believe the Kurds are making a power grab and Kurdish officials who believe they are being betrayed by Iraq's Shiite-led government and its allies.