Iraq's next milestone: the Kurdish question

The survival of the country depends on bridging the Kurd-Arab divide.

On June 30, Iraq will mark the withdrawal of US combat troops from its cities to surrounding areas. It counts as a major milestone on the road to real Iraqi sovereignty, as well as a point from which to consider the progress made in securing Iraq's future.

In May 2007, as the US troop "surge" was getting under way, 126 US troops were killed in Iraq; last month, it was 25. The comparison for Iraqi troops? 197 versus 39. And for Iraqi civilian deaths? 2,600 versus 340.

The US will still have training forces in cities, but the withdrawal of American combat forces from urban centers sends "a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Saturday. He has declared Tuesday a national holiday of feasts and festivals.

Once that day is over, however, Iraq needs to prepare for an arduous journey with less US help. Al Qaeda still lurks. But perhaps more important, so does the unanswered "Kurdish question," which centers on the longstanding Kurdish-Arab conflict.

Tension between Mr. Maliki – an Arab – and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north has escalated significantly in the last year. It touches issues of fundamental importance – national unity, oil wealth, and the balance of power between the central government and the regions. Left unaddressed – or worse, provoked – the Kurd-Arab divide could split the Iraqi state.

A wide swath of disputed territory lies at the heart of the problem. Last August, only direct negotiation between Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Maliki was able to head off a military showdown between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-administered town of Khanaqin.

Nothing is more central to the territorial tug of war than the province of Kirkuk, which lies next to an oil field that contains 20 percent of the country's proven oil reserves. The Kurds consider Kirkuk historically theirs, but it is now populated by a mix of Kurds, Turkmens, Christians, and Arabs – the latter group was sent by Saddam Hussein to flood the area. The 2005 Iraqi Constitution calls for Kirkuk's status to be set by referendum, but the vote keeps being delayed.

Kirkuk relates directly to two other highly divisive issues in Iraq – central-government control and oil and gas revenues. The Constitution laid down broad parameters for both, with regions enjoying considerable power. Their law trumps federal law in areas that lie outside the exclusive control of the federal government – as does the management of oil and gas.

But Maliki and his supporters want to change the Constitution to give more power to Baghdad. National elections are due in January, and he wants to show he has the strength to pull the country together and the control to make a difference. For instance, without waiting for a long-disputed hydrocarbon law to pass parliament, his oil ministry has decided to auction petroleum and gas fields – including ones near Kirkuk – to foreign companies.

It was encouraging to hear US Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen tell the Monitor last week that he would place additional forces in areas disputed by the Kurds and Arabs. He says the US can encourage dialogue between Kurdish military leaders and Iraqi government forces, and indeed, the US should keep its eye on this divide.

But ultimately, the Kurdish question is one the Iraqis themselves will have to answer. And it must be done through the political process. The example of what happens when one group's will is imposed on another was just made clear in next-door Iran – as if years of sectarian violence at home needed any elaboration.

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