Journal Essay

Kurds in Iraq: The Struggle Between Baghdad and Erbil

Gareth Stansfield and Liam Anderson

Spring 2009, Volume XVI, Number 1

Dr. Stansfield is professor of Middle East politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and director of the Centre for Ethno-Political Studies (EXCEPS) at the University of Exeter, UK, and an associate fellow of Chatham House.* Dr. Anderson is associate professor of political science at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, and a visiting fellow at EXCEPS, Exeter. Their co-authored book, Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise, is soon to be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

For those interested in ensuring Iraq’s stability and territorial integrity, the relationship between Arabs and Kurds is now of paramount importance. Indeed, it is a difficult task to identify any single problem over the forthcoming year that is not influenced in some way by the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).1 To consider but a few: the negotiations over a much-needed Hydrocarbons Law remain deadlocked; the constitutional-reform process is moribund; the Iraqi government’s questioning of the legal status of the Kurdistan Army (the peshmerga) is matched by the KRG’s refusal to accept the legitimization of militias (the isnad) proposed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; and an immense swath of territory is claimed by both the KRG and the Iraqi government, including the geopolitically valuable province of Kirkuk. Even fundamental questions concerning the future of Iraq itself, particularly whether it will be truly federal or federal in name only, remain unresolved. Each one of these issues constitutes a significant challenge, and each requires concessions to be made in an environment that is far from conducive to compromise and consensus. Rather, the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil is characterized by suspicion, animosity and brinkmanship.

This paper takes stock of the Kurdish-Arab relationship in Iraq and seeks to ascertain why it deteriorated so markedly from mid-2007 to early 2009. We also aim to provide a corrective to analyses of Iraqi politics which tend to view the Kurds as, if not quite marginal, at least secondary players in a greater game that focuses on the resurrection of a unified sense of secular Iraqi nationalism built around a distinctly Arab narrative. The debate about the resurrection of Iraqi nationalism is not the core focus of our analysis, although we would argue that it is a far more fi ckle and fragmented force than many of its exponents suggest. Rather, our analysis presents the Kurdish-Arab divide as being one of, if not the, principal challenges facing Iraq and interested members of the international community into 2009. Put simply, if the management of this division is successful and results in a durable set of political compromises, then Iraq will survive and may even evolve into a sustainable democracy. If, however, the divide worsens, or if there is an attempt by Baghdad to impose a “solution” on Erbil — which would be followed by a violent reaction — then the fragile political consensus that underpins Iraq’s nascent political order will unravel in short order, and the very territorial integrity of Iraq will be threatened.

The Threat to the State

The relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad is not only critical to Iraq’s stability, it is vital to the very survival of the Iraq state. This fact is acknowledged only rarely by commentators. More commonly, the Kurds are presented as being significantly constrained by domestic and regional pressures. In the domestic setting, the Kurds, while often described as locally powerful, are still largely considered a minority within the state, and as such increasingly overshadowed by the rising tide of Iraqi nationalist fevor. Regionally, their geopolitical circumstances are cited regularly as evidence that their neighbors (especially Turkey and Iran) will oppose any further consolidation of the Kurdistan region in order to prevent the occurrence of any similar development within their own boundaries.

The logical conclusion of these arguments is that the Kurdish issue in Iraq, while important, does not threaten Iraq’s continued existence as gravely as, for example, the sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict. Recent evidence suggests that this view is distinctly counterfactual. Even at the height of the most brutal moments of the Sunni-Shiite conflict following the destruction of the Askariyya Shrine in Samarra in January 2006, the political system of the post-2005 state and the overall activities of the government were not threatened because the principal power holders in the government and the Council of Representatives — including the Kurdish and Shiite blocs — continued their work and maintained their alliances. Now, however, disputes between the Kurds and their partners in Baghdad threaten the stability of the state at a far deeper political level.

Two opposing strategies have now emerged that map very neatly and very dangerously onto the Arab-Kurdish divide. Among Arab Sunnis and Turkmens, in addition to the Shiites who are not affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq or ISIC (those gathering around Maliki and the Sadrists), there is a desire to increase the power of the government of Iraq vis-àvis the “regions,” whether extant (as in the case of the Kurdistan Region) or planned (as in the case of the possible Region of Basra). Leading this strategy is Prime Minister al-Maliki himself, who has, particularly since mid-2008, attempted to project himself as a defender of the territorial integrity of Iraq willing to take diffi cult actions.2

Opposing this strategy is an alliance of the Kurdish parties and ISCI. For them, the implementation of the constitution of 2005 is non-negotiable, as is the established allocation of powers between the federal government and the regions. For the Kurds, this mandates implementation of the constitutional provision that determines the future status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories (Article 140) and the enforcement of articles that prohibit the formation of private militias (namely, Article 9). For ISCI, Maliki’s attempts to generate an Iraqi nationalist support base (comprising Sadrists and Arab Sunnis) that may challenge its own political position of prominence among the Shiite population has turned him from pliant puppet into a dangerous threat. This struggle is not particularly “ethnic,” and certainly not “sectarian,” in nature. It pits “centralists” against “regionalists” in a defi ning struggle to determine how power is to be structured in Iraq.

This struggle is in danger of evolving from political rhetoric to open military conflict. Throughout the second half of 2008, Maliki and Massoud Barzani (the president of the Kurdistan Region) were locked in a vitriolic war of words that very nearly saw the outbreak of hostilities between Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Army units in the disputed town of Khanaqin in Diyala province, while the ISCI’s Badr Army remains poised to counter any moves by forces loyal to Maliki in the center and south of the country.

The struggle between Baghdad and Erbil is fought in two environments. The first of these is along the points of contact between Kurds and non-Kurds, the disputed territories themselves.3 In this swath of land, running from Sinjar in the northwest next to the Iraq-Syria border, down to Baladruz in the southeast adjacent to the Iraq-Iran border, Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen, Christian, Ezidi and Shabak communities have all been drawn into a struggle for influence that, by its nature, is forcing them to choose sides in a highly polarized and politicized environment. This polarization has not, for the most part, been driven by inherent communal antipathy within these regions, although in some places such animosity is readily apparent, but by the pressures that have been brought to bear from developments in the second conflict environment — among the political elites of the Iraqi and Kurdistan regional governments.4 This dynamic was made dangerously apparent in August 2008, when ISF units were ordered into the Kurdish-administered town of Khanaqin.

The Khanaqin Effect

The question of which government should administer the disputed territories is fraught with complexity. While there have been agreements, both formal and informal, between Baghdad and Erbil on this question, the presence of peshmerga in territories deemed to be outside the current limits of the KRG, and the presence of ISF in territories deemed to be historically part of Kurdistan, provide the spark that could ignite military conflict. This very nearly happened in Diyala province, when peshmerga and ISF were mobilized in the town of Khanaqin some 150 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. The trigger for the confrontation was Maliki’s July 2008 security operation (Operation Promise of Good), ostensibly designed to root out remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Diyala province, but suspected by the Kurds of being part of a broader strategy to drive the Kurds out of disputed territories.5 By mid-August, Iraqi forces had reached Khanaqin, a Kurdish-majority town then occupied by approximately 4,000 peshmerga. Briefly, it appeared as if a military showdown was imminent, as the ISF issued an ultimatum to Kurdish forces demanding their withdrawal within 24 hours. After Kurdish forces ignored the ultimatum, Iraqi forces moved in to forcibly evacuate buildings occupied by Kurdish officials. On August 26, a major demonstration was organized in Khanaqin to protest the presence of the ISF, and the ISF subsequently withdrew. In the end, President Barzani flew to Baghdad to broker an end to the confrontation directly with Maliki.

The situation toward the end of 2008 remained tense but stable. A separation-of-forces agreement remained intact, with ISF and peshmerga units withdrawn to positions some 25 km north and south of the city, and security in Khanaqin town itself provided by police.6 Arab subdistricts to the south of the town have been taken over by the ISF, with the peshmerga pulling back to the northerly positions. Both sides remain convinced that they would have inflicted a defeat on the other. This is unlikely. The ISF, while improving, would have struggled to defeat the peshmerga, particularly as the most effective components of the ISF are seconded from the peshmerga and remain loyal to their Kurdish leaders. While this is the case now, however, it may not be in the future, as the ISF continues to improve as a military force, and the Iraqi government seeks to equip it with improved equipment and resources. With this in mind, there are certainly some within the Kurdish leadership who believe it would be better to confront the Iraqi government militarily when the next opportunity arises, rather than wait for the ISF to be turned upon the peshmerga at a time of their choosing in a future that may not be as fortuitous for the Kurds.

While limited in geographic scope, the effects of Khanaqin reverberated throughout the Kurdish-Arab relationship. For the Kurdish leadership, Khanaqin is clear evidence of the fact that, not only can Maliki not be trusted, but no Iraqi leader can be trusted. With this in mind, Maliki’s actions fit a clear pattern that they have experienced in the past. When Baghdad is weak, the Iraqi government agrees to Kurdish demands. When Baghdad is strong, an effort is made to reassert pre-eminence over the Kurds. To understand the Kurdish reaction to events in Khanaqin, it is necessary to contextualize the event in a wider historical frame. To have Iraqi army units, with personnel speaking Arabic, entering a town that had suffered Arabization and the terrible repression of the Baathist state in the past was always destined to provoke a significant — even disproportionate — emotional response from Kurds and their leaders. This Khanaqin effect of Kurdish distrust toward the intentions of Maliki, and Arab animosity toward what is viewed as Kurdish expansionism threatens to reach the boiling point over the status of the one city that generates unparalleled emotion on both sides: Kirkuk.

Crisis in Kirkuk and the Disputed Territories

The overwhelming focus of attention on the deteriorating relationship between the KRG and Baghdad has been on the status of Kirkuk. This is understandable. Situated in a region populated by a cosmopolitan mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians, and located next to Iraq’s second-largest oilfield, containing 20 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves, Kirkuk has been a perennial subject of disagreement between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government.7 Considered by the Kurds to be historically an integral part of Kurdish domains that were subsequently Turkified during the Ottoman Empire (though through processes deemed largely uncontroversial by Kurds) and Arabized by every Iraqi government since the inception of the state, the Kurdish demand to “bring Kirkuk back” to the Kurdistan Region has only grown more vociferous since 2003.

The Kurds believe that they have exercised caution and compromised with the Iraqi government over Kirkuk. After the peshmerga took the city in 2003, the Kurds formally handed it back to U.S. forces following complaints from Arabs and Turkmens. However, rather than back away from claiming Kirkuk, the Kurds made it one of their main focal points during the drafting of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) of 2004 and the Constitution of 2005. In a move described by Kurdish leaders as being a compromise of huge proportions, the TAL specifi ed a three-stage plan to resolve the question of whether Kirkuk’s future lay inside or outside the Kurdistan Region. The plan, which required “normalization” (i.e., the reversing of the Arabization policy), a census, and a referendum, was presented in Article 58 of the TAL and enshrined in Article 140 of the constitution.

For the Kurds, resolving the situation simply involves implementing Article 140 of the Constitution. The outcome would almost certainly see Kirkuk merge with the current KRG-administered region. Yet there are significant obstacles preventing a straightforward approach. Kirkuk’s non-Kurdish populations are numerous and geographically localized. Generally speaking, the Kurds predominate in the northern, central and western districts of the province, with Arabs being predominant in the western districts and Turkmens in the south. The city itself is similarly divided among the three communities, and the past five years have witnessed the increasing segregation of communities into distinct quarters. The views of Arab and Turkmen communities in particular have been seized upon by the Kurds’ opponents in the Iraqi government, including Nouri al-Maliki, with the result that Article 140 was not implemented during the designated time frame (which expired at the end of 2007) and remains unlikely to be implemented in the near future. In addition, opposition to the Kurds’ gaining Kirkuk is not contained within Iraq. Parts of the Turkish government, and especially within the military establishment, remain resolutely opposed to the aggrandisement of the Kurdistan Region, believing that gaining Kirkuk would give the Kurds everything they need to secede from Iraq and declare their independence.8

This presents significant problems for the Kurdish leadership. Having portrayed themselves as the liberators of Kirkuk and the defenders of Kurdistan, Kurdish leaders (Massoud Barzani, in particular) now have to consider how they manage Kurdish popular opinion (the expectations of which have been raised by an unremitting PR campaign conducted across Kurdish media outlets). It is now widely expected that the return of Kirkuk will not occur quickly, and that the agreed constitutional process to manage the situation will at best be seriously delayed and, at worst, replaced.

By the end of 2008, this stand-off over Kirkuk had reached dangerous levels following the earlier events in Khanaqin, with the KRG leadership openly threatening to occupy the province (which it could easily accomplish, but which would provoke a dangerous reaction from the non-Kurdish population). The Kurds also fl exed their political muscles in Baghdad, obstructing the progress of vitally important components of the constitutional review process, and ensuring that other key pieces of legislation, including the elections and hydrocarbons laws, were put on hold. They also hinted that the security of southeast Turkey could be affected negatively if Turkey interfered in Kirkuk.9 This strategy was largely successful. Yet it came at the price of further damaging the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad. Indeed, by December 2008, the relationship between Kurds and Arabs had never been worse in the post-2003 period.

The status of Kirkuk, however, was only one part of a wider problem of determining the future of disputed territories. Stretching from Sinjar in the west to Baladruz in the southeast, the disputed territories cover a vast swath of land considered by the Kurds to be historically part of Kurdistan. This association is totally rejected by those Arabs, Turkmens and Christians who also reside there, once again bringing communities into conflict on the basis of ethnic identity. Maliki and his supporters are resolutely opposed to Kurdish territorial demands and assert that there are no “disputed territories” in Ninevah, Diyala or Kirkuk, as they have all been traditionally recognized as distinctly “Iraqi.” Arab tribes are only too keen to embrace any authority that can challenge the power of the Kurds in these areas, largely for their own local reasons rather than for any wider Iraqi nationalist nostalgia.

The Kurds have, in many ways, been their own worst enemies in this regard, particularly when it has come to managing their relations with the Turkmen and Christian communities. What should have been natural non-Arab alliance partners for the Kurds have turned into erstwhile opponents (particularly among the Turkmens) due to the heavy-handed actions of Kurdish security organizations in these regions. Maliki’s strategy in Ninevah in particular is very obvious. Not only has he moved ahead with forming sahwat (awakening) and isnad (support) councils in Mosul, but he also ordered the Ministry of Interior to assume direct responsibility for security in the city on November 15, and transferred out those units of the ISF dominated by Kurds that have retained primary links to the Kurdish leadership. This strategy has come on the back of an earlier policy of replacing Kurdish officers in ISF divisions stationed in Ninevah, Diyala and Salahadin provinces with those recruited from Arab parts of Iraq.

While the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories are the fundamental issues that have brought the Kurds and the Iraqi government to the threshold of yet another violent conflict, there are two other recent developments that have served to heighten this tension further.10 Both relate to Prime Minister Maliki’s desire to consolidate the power of the central government, and his own personal position, in particular. To achieve the former, Maliki has become increasingly critical of the constitution, viewing it as a document written according to the political realities of the 2003-05 period and, therefore, in need of change that would recognize the logic of the prominence of the central government over its regional underling. In terms of strengthening his own position, Maliki is clearly determined to loosen the bonds that tie him to the Kurds and ISCI by building a new power base among those whom neither the Kurds nor ISCI can ever win over: Sunni Arab tribal leaders and Islamists, former (or even current) Baathists, Turkmens and Christians, and Kurds opposed to the continued hegemony of Barzani and Talabani in the Kurdistan Region. With each of these policies, Maliki is coming closer to conflict with the Kurdish leadership.

The Threat of the Isnad

Few developments have incensed the Kurdish leadership as much as Maliki’s announcement on November 4, 2008, of his intention to establish isnad councils in the disputed territories. Similar in scope and purpose to the sahwat formations in the center and south of the country, the isnad groups would be formed from those opposed to the agenda of the Kurds: namely Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds in opposition to the current leadership of the Kurdistan Region.

The success of the Awakening Movement (also known as the Sons of Iraq, or sahwat) in predominantly Arab Sunni areas of Iraq as a means of combating insurgent activity was not lost on Prime Minister Maliki. Not only had the initiative proved itself invaluable as a tool in the fight against enemies of the state, it had shown the impact that targeted uses of patronage tied to his political authority could have. In short, the sahwat illuminated a potential short-cut to generating a stronger support base and loyal armed formation. Operating outside the established structures of the ISF or even Iraqi government-security offices — which had been dominated by the Kurds and ISCI since 2003 — Maliki’s strategy of building a network of organizations answerable directly to him has obvious benefits for any leader in a state where the principal power holders all have some form of militia at their command.

The first indications of Maliki’s new strategy came at the beginning of November, when he convened meetings in Baghdad with representatives of Kirkuk’s most prominent Arab tribes.11 Noting the tribes’ importance in maintaining security in Kirkuk, Maliki agreed to establish “support councils” in the province to improve security and continue the struggle against al-Qaeda. This is a strategy the Kurds claim is nonsensical, as the al-Qaeda presence is Kirkuk is weak if not mythical.

Unsurprisingly, Arab tribes in Kirkuk have rallied to Maliki’s call, viewing it as a real opportunity to resume their position of prominence in the governorate and challenge the authority of the KDP and PUK. The problem for Maliki, however, is that he can very quickly be associated not as a figure of national unity, but more as a dictator in the mold of Saddam, particularly by the Kurds who remain highly sensitive to the symbols and rhetoric of Arab nationalism. On November 15, following direct and private calls from Maliki’s offi ce to tribal and community leaders in the Arab districts of Hawija and Riyadh in Kirkuk governorate, Arab demonstrators took to the streets chanting a modifi ed version of a slogan popular under Saddam, with ‘Kirkuk’ replacing ‘Saddam’: “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Kirkuk.” Following these events, personal relations between Barzani and Maliki reached an all-time low, with the former telling the latter “You smell like a dictator” during a recent Baghdad meeting.12 With such private comments being made and intense rhetoric appearing in the media, the future outlook for Iraq’s stability began to appear decidedly bleak.

For the Kurds, however, their sensitivity to military forces extends beyond opposition to the deployment of the ISF to the disputed territories or the deliberate empowerment of Arabs against them. While the actions of the Iraqi military of Saddam Hussein are remembered vividly, the animosity generated by the actions of the army pale into relative insignificance when compared to the actions committed by those Kurdish irregular forces that fought on the side of the government in the destructive bouts of conflict in the 1970s and 1980s. Known by the derogatory term jash (donkey), tribes opposed to the Barzanis found common cause with the Iraqi government, openly fi ghting against the KDP and PUK, and assisting the Iraqi security services in their prosecution of the anfal campaign and other systematic campaigns of repression against Kurds. These tribes were numerous and included the Surchi, Herki, Baradosti, Zebari and Mizouri.13 Nothing would be more guaranteed to prompt a violent response from KRG President Barzani than the arming of his erstwhile tribal rivals.

Changing the Constitution

A final dimension of Arab-Kurd tension relates to the status of the constitution and the demands made by the Kurds’ opponents in the Iraqi government to redraft articles that stipulate the competences and responsibilities of regional governments and the federal government in favor of the latter. This strategy is a reaction to the Kurds’ attempts to implement Article 140 and to negotiate an oil law for Iraq that, in effect, recognizes the Kurdistan Region’s right to manage its own oil resources. For the Kurds, their actions are entirely in line with the constitution. The constitutional provisions that deal with the management of oil and gas fall outside the exclusive powers of the federal government, while Article 121, Section 2, assigns primacy to regional law over federal law when the two conflict in matters outside the exclusive powers of the federal government. Hence, the Kurds’ own oil and gas law trumps the federal law, if and when it comes into effect. For those opposed to the Kurds, however, the Kurds’ actions illustrate that their ultimate aim is to secede from the state and that the constitution is merely a convenient means to achieve this. By this line of reasoning, the constitution needs to be amended to diminish the powers of the KRG and to resurrect the centralized authority of Baghdad.

This political alliance of the Kurdish bloc and ISCI, combined with the boycott of the political process by most of the Arab Sunni community, was powerful enough to ensure that a constitution was passed by referendum in January 2005 and that the Council of Representatives (the parliament) would be dominated by the Kurdish-ISCI alliance.14 In effect, the Iraqi state was then reconstructed democratically, according to a plan deemed acceptable by these blocs. It is for this reason that the constitution included Article 140 and such devices as the so-called “Kurdish veto,” requiring constitutional revisions to be rejected by a two-thirds majority vote in three or more provinces — giving the Kurds the clear ability to prevent the implementation of any revision considered threatening to their interests. Yet both of these devices are part of a temporary procedure. If the Council of Representatives, influenced by a like-minded prime minister, for example, deemed the procedure expired, there is probably little the Kurds could do to prevent this within the legislative process.

The constitution is also unquestionably “federal” in the way it facilitates the formation of federal regions and apportions extensive governing powers to them. It is, of course, no secret that the two main supporters of federalism in Iraq were ISCI and their long-time allies in Kurdistan. This has led some commentators to consider the 2005 constitution to be a document that reflects the political realities of the immediate post-invasion period, when those opposed to the furthering of Kurdish autonomy or the federalization of Iraq — namely Sunnis and Shiites not affiliated with ISCI — were excluded (or, more precisely, excluded themselves) from the constitution-writing process. Now, so the argument goes, it would be reasonable for the constitution to be revised in order to return Iraq to what is perceived to be its “natural” state, a unitary entity focused on Baghdad with key competences all under the control of a centralized state.

The tension caused by this dilemma threatens to undermine the foundations of the state, with opposition emerging not only to the power enjoyed within the offices of the Iraqi government by ISCI and the Kurds, but to the constitution of 2005 itself. It is not easy to see how Kurdish demands to implement the constitution and the “Iraqi nationalist” demands to modify the constitution can be met simultaneously. Seen as a document written by the “powers that be” of 2005,15 it outlined a federal framework now deemed by many Arabs, of both Sunni and Shiite hue, and also other ethno-sectarian communities such as some Turkmens and Christians, as being anathema to their own interests and tantamount to empowering regionalist tendencies among the Kurds and like-minded Shiites to an unacceptable level. Leading this attack against the constitution is Maliki himself.

Maliki’s suggestions that the constitution may not be fit for its purpose were received with alarm in Erbil. Calling for a rewritten constitution that reins in the Kurdistan Region is not only a strategy that would increase the executive authority of the prime minister’s office over regions, whether in the north or south. It would also play to Iraqi and Arab-nationalist sentiment that views Kurdistan’s continued existence and aspirations to incorporate more territory and manage its own hydrocarbons industry as an existential threat to an Iraq dominated by a strong state narrative founded on Arabism. Particularly as the Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the referendum of January 2005 that saw an alliance of Shiites and Kurds formally approve the constitution, Maliki’s strategy is managing to achieve some form of consensus, however short-term, between Sunnis and Shiites opposed to the status quo of ISCI-Kurdish dominance.

But for exactly these reasons, the muscle-flexing prime minister is, as Barzani has stated with ominous frequency, “playing with fire.”16 The constitution, from the perspective of the Kurds, was not a document imposed upon Iraq by them and does not satisfy all of the Kurds’ demands. Rather, they see it as a compromise by them undertaken for the interests of the “new Iraq” and evidence of their commitment to the integrity of the state. By agreeing to submit the resolution of Kirkuk to the procedure outlined in Article 140 of the constitution, the Kurds believed that they not only compromised considerably, but allowed Iraq to remain territorially intact. Indeed, as Kurdish politicians are very quick to point out, without Article 140 in the constitution, the Kurds would never have supported it, and the constitution would never have been accepted by popular vote. Hence, any attempt now to redress the constitution to favor Baghdad over the north based upon arguments that Baghdad is now more capable of showing its strength across the country, will fall on deaf ears in Erbil. They also raise fears that the Kurds could once again be subjected to the homogenizing policies of the center when Baghdad is strong enough to quash Kurdistan’s autonomy. Viewed from the Kurdish perspective, threats to the constitution of 2005 are the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

For ISCI and other Shiite parties, including those most prominent in Basra (namely Hizb al-Fadilah), Maliki’s constitutional visions are also received with concern. They would be diametrically opposed to the plans of these parties to develop their own regions (as in the case of al-Fadilah and prominent politicians such as the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Wailil). These are not just pipe-dreams of local political leaders keen to make Basra into a northern Persian Gulf version of Dubai (as is often mentioned). They are plans with real popular appeal, grounded in a sense of being increasingly disconnected from Baghdad and dismissed by many Western academics as nonsensical and “historically illiterate.” The pressure to regionalise in the south is coming from very real economic drivers that those academics would be well advised to take seriously rather than pointing to historical patterns that are at best debatable.17 And, while ISCI’s star may have dimmed in recent months in terms of electoral popularity, ISCI, along with its associated Badr militia organization, remains one of the most effective and influential forces in today’s Iraq. Moreover, Badr personnel in particular are keen to cut Maliki down to size and to take action against his newfound allies among the Jaish al-Mahdi and the Sunni sahwat organizations. The future of southern Iraq will be dictated largely by internal competitions among these Shiite groups and a strong regionalized Basra could easily appear.

Events in 2009

There is a common assumption in Iraq among politicians, foreign-service officers and journalists alike that Maliki’s strategy, if it survives the immediate short-term tension, has time on its side. The relative balance of power between regionalists (Kurds and ISCI) and centralists (most of the rest) will begin to change. With 2009 being a year of elections in Iraq, commencing with provincial elections across the country (excluding the Kurdistan Region and Kirkuk), followed by elections in the Kurdistan Region in May and then municipal elections across the country, most expect Kurdish power in the governorate councils of Ninevah (Mosul) and Diyala to be seriously eroded as Sunni Arabs re-engage with the political process and express their numerical majority. Ninevah, for example, following the 2005 elections has had a council with 75 percent Kurdish membership in a province that is undeniably dominated by Arabs. Across the rest of the country, the position of ISCI in the governorate councils of the center and the south is clearly under threat from an increasingly popular Prime Minister Maliki.

With so many governorate councils falling from the control of the Kurds and ISCI, it is largely expected that the elections for the Council of Representatives, scheduled for December 2009, will reflect this change in the political landscape in localities and return a body dominated by non-ISCI-affiliated Shiite MPs as the largest parliamentary bloc, followed by a motley assortment of Sunni Arab MPs emanating from tribes, Islamist parties and nationalist groups, all unified against the Kurds and notions of federalism.

Under this plausible scenario, the power of the Kurdish bloc would be greatly reduced. It is even possible that a government would form without theparticipation of the Kurds, if the non-ISCI Shiite and Sunni blocs can exploit a common Arab nationalist, anti-federalist cause. It also seems unlikely that there will remain a Kurdish head of state (currently Jalal Talabani) or Kurds holding positions of importance in the executive (where currently Barham Salih is deputy prime minister and Hoshyar Zebari is foreign minister). However, though numerically feasible to form a government without the support of the Kurdish bloc, it would be politically disastrous to exclude the Kurds from participation in government. A government founded on Arab nationalism, devoid of Kurdish representation and dedicated to eliminating meaningful Kurdish autonomy in the north, would spell the beginning of the end for the territorial integrity of Iraq. Kurdish leaders have long maintained that, for the foreseeable future, an independent Kurdistan is not a viable option. Faced with an overtly anti-Kurdish government in Baghdad and the end of self-government for the Kurdistan Region, however, they would have little left to lose. The most likely outcome would be the annexation of those parts of the disputed territories -(including Kirkuk) occupied by Kurdish forces and secession from Iraq’s “voluntary union.” Ironically, then, the resurgence of Arab/Iraqi nationalist political sentiment premised on the preservation of a unified, centralized Iraq is the one thing most like to shatter the unity it seeks to preserve.

*He would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for supporting aspects of his work through a research fellowship “Between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens: Managing Kirkuk.”

1 The KRG first formed in 1992 following the withdrawal of Iraqi government forces and administrative offices from the Kurdistan region in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait and subsequent routing. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which shared power in the KRG equally, then fell into conflict from 1994 onwards, resulting in the division of the Kurdistan Region into two independent KRGs. From 1996 onward, the KDP-dominated KRG resided in Erbil, while the PUK-dominated KRG controlled Suleimaniyah and the Garmian (Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk and Diyala) region. A process of unification was begun in 1997 that led to the U.S.-sponsored Washington Agreement of 1999, which codified a set of confidence-building measures that it was hoped would lead to a unified KRG. Even with the added impetus generated by the invasion of Iraq, the fi nal unification of the KRG only occurred on May 7, 2006, when the two administrations of Erbil and Suleimaniyah were finally brought together in Erbil under the premiership of senior KDPfigure Nechirvan Barzani, with PUK political-bureau member Omar Fattah his deputy. The cabinet was once again divided between the two parties but the relationship has proved to be more durable than it was in the mid-1990s. See Gareth Stansfield, Iraqi Kurdistan: Political Develop ment and Emergent Democracy (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); “From Civil War to Calculated Compromise: The Unification of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq,” in Gareth Stansfield and Robert Lowe (eds.), The Kurdish Policy Imperative (London: Chatham House, 2009).

2 The first, and still most notable, attempt by Maliki to show himself to be the protector of Iraq was taken in early 2008 in Basra. Keen to challenge the authority of rebel Sadrist groups in the city, Maliki committed the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) against them. In an action that saw the ISF gain control of Basra only following the intervention of Coalition forces (and also peshmerga), Maliki quickly began to assume the posture of the defender of Iraq’s integrity. For an analysis of events in Basra, see Steve Negus, “Maliki Risks Open Sadrist Insurrection,” The Financial Times, March 27, 2007.

3 For background analyses of the disputed territories, see International Crisis Group, “Oil for Soil: Toward a Grand Bargain on Iraq and the Kurds,” Middle East Report, No. 80, October 28, 2008; Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conict and Compromise (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

4 This fact has been consistently made apparent to the authors during several meetings with Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens during meetings in Europe, Kurdistan and Kirkuk. While conflict did at times occur in Kirkuk in particular (such as in 1958), the overall picture is one of relative harmony, where schoolchildren were familiar not only with their own language but with those of their neighbors, making trilingual communities (Arabic, Kurdish and Turkmen) not uncommon. The origins of the polarization of identity has a different starting point for each community, however. For the Kurds, earlier strategies of favoring Arabs over Kurds by the government turned into widespread Arabization (the forceful relocation of Kurds) under the fi rst Baath government of 1963 and was subsequently expanded upon until 2003. Turkmens, too, point at Arabization, but refer more strongly to the period of the 1990s, when the Kurdistan Region was formed and a strong Kurdish political agenda was deemed to have emerged. For Turkmens and Arabs, the greatest polarizing force has been the return of Kurds to disputed territories since 2003 and the claim made by the KRG to these lands.

5 The situation continues to the present, with the relationship between Kurdish and Iraqi forces remaining very tense with peshmerga units jockeying for control of Khanaqin’s outlying districts and subdistricts. See Sherko Raouf, “Standoff over Iraqi Town Stokes Tension with Kurds,” Reuters, August 31, 2008; Jonathan Steele, “Iraqi Army Readies for Showdown with the Kurds,” The Guardian, September 3, 2008; Dilshad Anwar, “Kurdish Peshmerga against Iraqi Army ‘Incursion’ into Jabara,” Hawlati, November 9, 2008.

6 A major factor in ensuring the continued standoff and the withdrawal of forces to 25 km out of Khanaqin was the fact that both the peshmerga and the ISF had military equipment that their opponents could not counter. With regard to the ISF, their ability to deploy tanks (which Maliki did) posed a considerable threat to the lightly armed peshmerga. However, the Kurds’ ability to deploy medium-range artillery pieces with a range of around 25 km also served to temper Maliki’s actions.

7 Whether Kirkuk is now the prize it once was is a pertinent question to ask. Following years of over-exploitation by the Iraqi government, it is speculated that the quality of oil produced from Kirkuk is now diminished. See United Nations, Report of the Group of United Nations Experts Established Pursuant to Paragraph 30 of the Security Council Resolution 1284, 2000.

8 See Suzan Fraser, “Turkish Prime Minister Warns Iraqi Kurdish Leader Not to Threaten Turkey,” The Inde pendent, April 10, 2007; International Crisis Group, “Iraq and the Kurds: Solving the Kirkuk Crisis,” Middle East Report No. 64, April 19, 2007; Greg Bruno, “Turkey’s Iraq Surge,” Council on Foreign Relations Daily Analysis, December 19, 2007.

9 For example, Massoud Barzani’s interview of May 1, 2008, on Al-Arabiyya TV threatened to interfere in the Turkish city of Diyarbekir, if Turkey intervened in Kirkuk.

10 For a Kurdish analysis of this situation, see Farid Asasard, “Al-Maliki and the Policy of Taking Iraq Backwards,” in Kurdistani Nwe [daily Kurdish-language newspaper of the PUK, published in Suleimaniyah], November 22, 2008.

11 See, for example, Al-Iraqiyyah TV, Baghdad, November 4, 2008.

12 The Economist, “Iraq: Is It Really Coming Right?” November 27, 2008.

13 See “Iraqi Kurdish Tribes in Kirkuk Set Up Pro-Government Forces,” Hawal [newspaper published in Kirkuk] November 1, 2008.

14 For an analysis of the structural weakneses of the post-2003 Iraqi government, see Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy or Division? (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 2nd ed.).

15 The phrase “powers that be” was, in the context of Iraq, originally coined by USIP analyst Sam Parker. See Michael Gordon, “The Last Battle,” The New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2008; Reidar Visser, “The Kirkuk Issue Exposes Weaknesses in Iraq’s Ruling Coalition,”, accessed December 15, 2008.

16 See Ernesto Londoño, “Kurds in Northern Iraq Receive Arms from Bulgaria,” The Washington Post, November 23, 2008.

17 See Toby Dodge, “Seven Questions: Is the Surge Working in Iraq?” Foreign Policy web exclusive, September 2007,; Reidar Visser, “Historical Myths of a Divided Iraq,” Survival, Vol. 50, No. 2, pp. 95-106.