Talks between Kurdish and central government forces aimed at defusing military tension in northern Iraq have collapsed amid fears that bitter political divisions are again bringing the country to the brink of civil war.
The talks in Baghdad between Iraqi and Kurdish military commanders brokered by a three-star American general broke down on Thursday, two days after the prime minister announced both sides had agreed on pulling back forces in part of the disputed areas. Officials on Friday said there were no new talks scheduled.
Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, who has described deployment of Iraqi forces as a plot against the Kurds, accused the Iraqi prime minister of reneging on the agreement and vowed that Kurdish forces would deter Baghdad’s “militarism.”
The collapse of the talks and the high-profile corruption charges connected to a Russian arms deal have added fuel to efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political opponents to engineer a no-confidence vote. While attacks have declined since sectarian violence tore the country apart several years ago, rampant corruption and political paralysis have made it difficult for the country to move forward.
“We believe this is a deliberate policy by Baghdad to divert attention from the government’s political failures and its deepening crisis, including corruption,” says Barham Salih, former Kurdish prime minister and a senior official in President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Mr. Maliki says a new security operations center overseeing three northern provinces adjacent to the Kurdish region was necessary to address worsening security. The Kurds have seen the move by Iraqi forces to consolidate control in areas disputed by the two sides as a declaration of hostilities.
Gunfire involving Iraqi and Kurdish forces killed a civilian and prompted both Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga commanders to move more forces into the region.
Despite the rhetoric, neither side appears to be ready or willing to engage in a larger battle. But the same fear that prompted US forces to act as a bridge between the two factions before American troops withdrew from Iraq has prompted worry that the ongoing tension could ignite something that would be difficilt to stop.
Although the troops are gone, the US continues to play a limited role in trying to resolve the conflict.
The prime minister’s office on Tuesday took the unusual step of specifying that an American official, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslan, in charge of the US embassy’s office of security cooperation, was involved in the talks with the Kurds.
A senior adviser to the Kurdish President Falah Mustafa says a cabinet-level delegation on the government side, which had been expected to agree to a plan hammered out by military commanders on both sides, hadn’t done so. He said Friday no new talks were scheduled.
The plan calls for developing a mechanism for “urgent” withdrawal of two sides to positions held before the mid-November clash.
The Kurds are also asking for a review of the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command, seen by even many of Maliki’s allies as part of wide-ranging efforts to centralize power.
Political landscape change?
Many view the dispute as an attempt to lay the groundwork for provincial elections scheduled for next year – seen as a key test of support for political parties facing a national poll in 2014.
Maliki owes his position to a fragile and fractious coalition of Shiite and Kurdish parties cobbled together after he failed to win a majority two years ago.
“The political landscape will be quite different from what we have seen in 2010,” says Maria Fantappie of the International Crisis Group. “Maliki seems to be devoting a lot of thought to how to create a cross-sectarian and cross-confessional political force…. The provincial election is an important opportunity to see who has power, where.”
The current coalition is increasingly fraying, with key partners such as Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr increasingly going on the attack against the prime minister. Maliki has been reaching out to Sunni politicians and a breakaway Shiite faction of the Sadr movement for political support.
On Thursday, Mr. Sadr lashed out in a statement against what he said were security failures by the Maliki government as well as growing corruption scandals.
“The Iraqi spring will come against corruption, sectarianism, and those engaged in corruption and terrorism,” said the statement from the influential cleric.
Maliki this week dismissed his government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, in a widening scandal over a $5.2 billion Russian arms deal – one of more than a dozen officials being summoned by Iraq’s integrity commission in an investigation over alleged corruption. Iraq, eager to lessen its dependence on the US, had planned to buy attack helicopters and missile systems from Russia. The deal was opposed by the Kurds who fear the weapons could be used against them.
Although the country has become much safer, there are still regular bombings and assassinations of government and security officials.
Iraq on Thursday was hit by a string of bombings and suicide bombings, most of them in the Shiite south, killing more than 35 people and exposing serious weaknesses in security.
Two million pilgrims gathered in Karbala last Sunday to commemorate Ashura – the main day of mourning for the killing of Imam Ali – without a single bomb exploding. An estimated 30,000 security forces blanketed the city and were placed on high alert in Baghdad and other cities.
But on Thursday, a suicide bomber was apparently waved through several checkpoints before detonating his truck packed with hidden explosives just a few hundred yards from the Karbala shrine.
Many checkpoints rely on widely discredited explosive detection devices that the Iraqi government purchased several years ago at hugely inflated cost and are the subject of a fraud case in Britain.