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 The new strength of Iraq’s central government is alarming the Kurds

 Source : The Economist - print edition
  Kurd Net does not take credit for and is not responsible for the content of news information on this page

 


The new strength of Iraq’s central government is alarming the Kurds  20.2.2009




February 20, 2009

Erbil-Hewler, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', —
In Its campaign to attract foreign investment, Iraq’s self-ruling Kurdistan region often promotes itself as the “gateway to Iraq”. If investors set up shop in the country’s most stable area, they will, say the Kurds, be guaranteed pole position when the rest of Iraq becomes safe for business. Hitherto, visas issued at the Kurds’ two international airports or at their land crossings with Turkey and Iran were accepted by Iraq’s central authorities when visitors travelled on to Baghdad and beyond. Thousands of foreign businessmen and journalists used to take advantage of this easy entry into Iraq. But Iraq’s prime minister,www.ekurd.netal-Maliki, recently declared that foreigners entering via the Kurdish region without a visa issued by the central authorities may be arrested and deported. So the “gateway” has, for the moment, been closed. Mr Maliki presumably intends to show the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) who is ultimately in charge.

In the past year or so, Iraq’s Kurds, despite the enviable security of their territory, have been on the back foot in Iraqi politics. As violence in the rest of the country has subsided, territorial disputes between Kurds and Arabs—in the province of Kirkuk and in parts of Nineveh and Diyala—have become more dangerous again. And the Kurds are increasingly angered by their continuing failure to seal an agreement with the central government on an oil law.

The Kurds still want a referendum to decide whether Kirkuk and other Kurdish-populated areas, as well as those “Arabised” under Saddam Hussein, should become part of their self-governing region. According to the constitution, this referendum should have been held by the end of 2007, but it has been postponed repeatedly and some Arabs now argue that the constitutional requirement has lapsed. The Kurds also demand the right to manage the extraction and exploration of oil in their region, although they say they would continue to share the revenue equally with the rest of Iraq.

In local elections held at the end of last month in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces (but not in the three Kurdish ones or Kirkuk), Kurdish parties lost ground in the mixed provinces of Nineveh and Diyala to Sunni Arab parties, which had previously boycotted the polls. Tension between Arabs and Kurds, especially in those areas, has risen. In Nineveh, a stridently anti-Kurdish group called al-Hadba (an Arabic name for Mosul, the capital), led by Sunni Arabs, won the council with 49% of the votes. The Kurds had previously run the show there, thanks largely to the Arab boycott.

Many Kurds now worry that a strongman may once again be emerging in Baghdad. The Kurdish parliament’s deputy speaker was reported to have called Mr Maliki “a second Saddam”. With American approval, the prime minister has consolidated his power. His Islamist Shia party did well in the local elections on a relatively secular law-and-order platform. He called for strong central government,
www.ekurd.netanathema to the Kurds after their suffering at the hands of Saddam. Arab politicians, seemingly with tacit American approval, have begun to deride the Kurds more openly for their supposed “stubbornness”. Mr Maliki and Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, get on badly and have not met for months.

Maliki has questioned the Kurds’ right to control some of the disputed areas, for instance around the town of Khanaqin and in some parts of Kirkuk province. He has even deployed Iraqi troops there to test the Kurds’ response; the Kurds have so far refused to be provoked into fighting. He has also promoted constitutional changes to dilute the power of regions.

The Kurds’ political standing has been further weakened by strife within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the Kurds’ two main parties, which is headed by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani. Five senior PUK men resigned, calling Mr Talabani too autocratic, but then came back into the fold when he said he would try to meet some of their demands. Alarmed by this apparent dip in the Kurds’ political fortunes, Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdish region’s prime minister (and nephew of its president), has raised the spectre of war with Iraq’s Arabs and called on the Americans to settle the main unresolved issues before their troops withdraw from the country.

So far, however, the Kurds’ love affair with the Americans has seemed one-sided. “We love them but they don’t care,” the Kurdish region’s prime minister said recently, not for the first time. “When we say something about protecting our people’s rights,
www.ekurd.netthey see it as a problem that disrupts their Iraq policy.” Some Western diplomats, afraid that Kurdish-Arab tension may boil over again, think the Americans should do more to get the UN and perhaps the European Union involved in broking a deal. The Kurds want President Obama to appoint a special envoy to tackle the issue, but he shows no sign of doing so. The new administration, says one American general, would probably still want to “kick the issue down the road”.

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