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Syrian conflict threatens to fracture Iraq

Semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government are on a collision course as the Kurds increasingly side with the Syrian opposition and Baghdad stands by the Assad regime. 

By Mohammed A. SalihCorrespondent / December 27, 2012

A Kurdish Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag in August during a deployment in the area near the northern Iraqi border with Syria, which lies in an area disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish region of Ninawa province.

Azad Lashkari/Reuters/File

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Irbil, Iraq

In September, as the Iraqi government reached one of its lowest points in relations with Turkey in years, Ankara welcomed Iraqi Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani as a guest of honor at a convention hosted by the ruling Justice and Development Party

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The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and the federal government in Baghdad have not seen eye to eye for years, and the gap between the two is now widening, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. That's been put in stark relief by the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has shifted the fortunes of Iraq's Kurds. 

A decade ago, Iraq was a Sunni Arab-dominated dictatorship that shared many problems with the Sunni Turks to the north. Both countries had restive ethnic-Kurdish separatist movements and uneasy relations with their Shiite and Persian neighbor, Iran.

Today, Iraq has a Shiite-dominated government that is close to Tehran, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria's civil war. Turkey, still eager to prevent Kurdish separatist sentiments within its borders, now sees the Iraqi Kurds as a potential ally in opposition to the interests of Iran, Baghdad and Damascus.

The emerging sectarian alliances have prompted Baghdad and the KRG to throw themselves into opposing camps in the Syrian war, creating conflicting interests in the supposedly unified country. 

As regional and Western diplomats point fingers at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for aiding embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – a charge which Baghdad vehemently denies – Iraqi Kurds are increasingly involved with the opposition, lured by the possibility that in a post-Assad Syria, Kurds there might achieve some degree of autonomy. That would allow the KRG to expand its foothold.

The KRG has hosted leaders of the Syrian opposition in its regional capital, Erbil, much to Baghdad's dismay. It has also lent support to Kurds in northeastern Syria – Barzani publicly admitted in July that his government is providing them with military training. And now some of the Kurdish factions there are holding talks with the mostly Arab Syrian opposition to decide whether and how to join them in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, even though the relationship between the two camps has been strained by several bouts of fighting.

"The Syria crisis is forcing everyone around Syria to choose sides," says Joost Hiltermann, who follows Iraq for the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Maliki is worried about the emergence of a post-Assad Sunni Islamist order in Syria... he finds that he has to support Assad by default. This puts him de facto in the Iranian camp and in conflict with Turkey."

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