Before Iraq election, Arab and Kurd tensions soar in the north

Ahead of the March 7 Iraq election, tensions between Arabs and Kurds are soaring after an incident involving Kurdish troops and forces loyal to the Arab governor of Ninevah. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told the Monitor that a warrant will soon be issued for the governor's arrest on a kidnapping charge.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters
Supporters display a picture of Massoud Barzani, the president of semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan during a sand storm at a celebration ahead of March 7 Iraq election in Kirkuk, 150 miles north of Baghdad, February 23.

In a sign of heightened Arab-Kurd tension along a disputed boundary just days from Iraq elections, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan says the governor of the adjoining Arab-majority province will be arrested if he enters Kurdish-controlled areas.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor at his mountaintop headquarters in northern Iraq, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani described Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi as a "criminal" and said a warrant would be issued for his arrest in connection with an incident this month involving US forces.

He also said Nujaifi had failed to secure the provincial capital of Mosul. Mr. Barzani offered to bring up to 2,000 Christian university students from the troubled city to Kurdistan to continue their studies. At least eight Christians have been killed in the last two weeks in Mosul in the latest wave of attacks on minorities.

“To us he is a criminal because he has kidnapped our own people and according to the judicial system there must be an order to arrest him,” Mr. Barzani said in the interview Monday. He said a warrant would be issued by a municipal court in Talkeef, the site of a incident last month that shook US attempts to normalize relations between Kurdish and Arab forces along the hundreds of miles of disputed internal borders.

Nujaifi did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails for comment in recent days. The local press reported Nujaifi has accused Kurdish forces of kidnapping Iraqi government forces in the incident. Detainees on both sides were freed in a prisoner exchange over the weekend.

As the country heads into national elections, followed by months of instability as a new government is formed, US officials describe Arab-Kurdish tension and its potential to flare into violence as one of their top concerns in Iraq. US military officials also worry that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups have exploited the gaps along the lines of control between security forces that at best do not coordinate with each other and at worst are hostile to each other.

Trouble in Talkeef

After months of negotiations with Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders, the US military started security co-ordination centers and joint checkpoints and patrols with US troops acting as a buffer between Iraqi government troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The intent was to build confidence between Kurdish and Arab forces and their leaders. Instead, in one of their first major tests, US forces two weeks ago escorted the controversial Mosul governor into the town of Takleef – a Kurdish-controlled town within Ninevah province. The result was the governor alleging an assassination attempt, the arrests of Kurdish forces by the governor’s troops, retaliatory arrests of Iraqi forces by the Kurds, and temporary suspension of joint patrols and checkpoints in the province. The Kurdish government also withdrew peshmerga from joint training in protest.

“It’s true, it had some repercussions on the relationship with the Americans,” said President Barzani. He said his normally warm relations with Gen. Ray Odierno – head of US forces in Iraq – were back on track and blamed the problem on a local US Army commander. Barzani said the joint patrols have resumed.

“Without the support of the local (US) commander and the Army, Nujaifi would not have been able to go to Talkeef or kidnap people,” said Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government which runs the semi-autonomous north. He said he had seen the men after they were released and they showed signs of being whipped and beaten with rubber hoses.

Najaifi came to power pledging to roll back Kurdish gains. US officials say that he was pelted with rocks and tomatoes but that bullets were fired into the air rather than at him.

Unlike most other parts of the country, Iraqi forces and their US advisors in Mosul are still fighting an active insurgency. The violence has claimed thousands of Kurds and Arabs but the most recent targets are Iraqi Christians, who have suffered kidnappings and murders in recent weeks.

The Kurdish government has taken in thousands of Christians who have fled their homes in Mosul. "This also shows the incompetence of the local government in Mosul," said Barzani.

Disputed territory

The issue of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, has been set aside since 2003 but will be a major issue looming over the new parliament. Saddam Hussein expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes in an attempt to Arabize oil-rich Kirkuk and other cities. With the fall of Saddam, the Kurds have moved to regain territory and reverse those losses.

The Kurds had controlled Ninevah’s provincial council until Sunni Arabs lifted their boycott of elections and Nujaifi was elected last year. In a measure of the complications and entrenched confessionalism of Iraqi politics, Nujaifi has refused to appoint any of the remaining 12 Kurdish representatives to government posts and the Kurds have refused to attend provincial council sessions.

“If he is not agreeing to include them in the provincial council then how will he be able to govern the Kurdish people?” asked Barzani.

US officials say they are committed to the principle of the elected governor being able to go anywhere within his province but some question the timing of the operation.

“He is the governor - as much as they hate his guts, he is the governor,” said one senior US military official speaking on condition of anonymity. “The fact that they hate his guts is immaterial.”

He said the joint mechanism was aimed at coordinating with the Kurdish side for the governors’ movement rather than getting their approval. “Was it the right thing to do? You can debate that,” he said.

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