Handover of Iraq's Kirkuk Airport sparks
By Sam Dagher - WSJ
at U.S. Airbase in Iraq's Kirkuk
November 18, 2011
KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region,
— A tense standoff between local police and the
Iraqi Army played out on Thursday at the gate of the
U.S. airbase in the northern city of Kirkuk, where a
dispute over land and oil threatens national
stability and unity as U.S. forces withdraw.
The territorial conflict, between the central
government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous
Kurdistan region, is just one flashpoint that some
American and Iraqi officials say could boil over
after the full pullout of U.S. troops at the end of
Fears of a clash between Iraqi troops and Kurdish
forces were heightened on Thursday, when the
Kurdish-dominated police in Kirkuk blocked senior
Iraqi Army commanders from entering the airbase,
where they said they were planning to take over the
Kirkuk Air base NMC Iraqi Jet at the Kirkuk Regional
Air Base. Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional
attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish
Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and perfect
capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state. Photo:
the U.S. military.
The army officials brought reporters from Iraqi
state-owned television to document the handover, in
what appeared to be an effort to show the nation
that Baghdad was in charge. The central government,
headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is
increasingly eager to project its power ahead of the
The installation, known as Forward Operating Base
Warrior, is among nine bases still under U.S.
control that are scheduled for transfer to Iraq by
the end of December.
The Kurds in the north are sensitive about even
allowing the army within the city limits, let alone
giving them claim to a military base in the city—one
of nearly a dozen disputed patches of oil-rich
territory along a 300-mile arc just beyond Iraq's
"We did not want a situation where we ended up
shooting at each other," said Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin
Mr. Karim met with Mr. Maliki and U.S. Ambassador
James Jeffrey in Baghdad in an effort to calm the
drama that was unfolding 180 miles to the north.
Mr. Karim, an American neurosurgeon of Kurdish
origin, said the standoff was resolved when Mr.
Maliki committed to converting the military airbase
into a civilian airport in the future, reflecting
the wishes of the majority of the members of the
The U.S. Embassy and Mr. Maliki's office didn't
respond to requests for comment.
After the verbal agreement in Baghdad, the police in
Kirkuk allowed a dozen Iraqi army vehicles to enter
the base, according to Mr. Karim.
But what happened next highlighted the level of
mistrust that remains despite U.S. efforts over the
years to tamp down tensions and nudge the two sides
to resolve their differences.
Hussein al-Assadi, a special adviser to Mr. Maliki
responsible for the formalities of receiving all
bases from the U.S. military, proceeded to hold a
handover ceremony in a section of the Kirkuk
airbase—though no U.S. commanders were present,www.ekurd.net
and all U.S.-Iraqi base handovers have been kept
under wraps in recent months for security reasons.
Mr. Assadi said he was transferring security
responsibility of the base to the commander of Iraqi
ground troops, Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, in the presence
of dozens of other Iraqi officers. "This is a joyous
occasion for Kirkuk and Iraq," said Mr. Assadi.
Gen. Ghaidan suggested the decision to turn the
airbase into a civilian airport hadn't been
finalized, given its strategic importance to the air
The ceremony topped the news bulletin on the
state-owned Iraqiya TV station.
Later, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq,
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, told The Wall Street
Journal that the base remained under American
control and that as far as the U.S. was concerned no
transfer had occurred.
Gen. Buchanan said a transfer would happen in "the
very near future" and that while he was concerned
about the jostling for control of the airbase, his
bigger worry was the unresolved conflict between the
central government and the Kurdistan region.
"My bigger concern longer-term is the need to
continue the political dialogue that can solve the
underlying problems that still have not been
resolved," he said.
The potential for a clash between Iraqi troops and
Kurdish forces has been a main source of concern for
many U.S. military officials in the aftermath of
President Barack Obama's announcement last month
that the U.S. would withdraw all troops from Iraq by
the end of the year.
In testimony before Congress, the nation's
second-ranking uniformed officer said this week that
a chief worry once the U.S. pullout is complete is
the tension between the two sides, especially in
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) asked Gen. Martin
Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
whether the potential conflict in the Iraqi north
"will become a destabilizing flash point."
Gen. Dempsey responded: "I worry about a lot of
things, senator, and I will include this among the
list of things I worry about."
In Kirkuk, Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen—diverse ethnic
groups belonging to Iraq's majority Muslim
faith—have been immersed in a fight, at times
bloody, for control of the oil-rich province.
The struggle also pits the Arab-dominated central
government in Baghdad against the semiautonomous
Kurdistan region, which claims authority in Kirkuk
and other territories.
While the epicenter of this struggle is Kirkuk, it
extends east to the Iranian border and northwest to
the Syrian frontier.
At the end of 2009, the U.S. military oversaw the
creation of a joint security mechanism between
Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army to conduct patrols
and man checkpoints in the disputed territories in
order to foster trust and give political leaders on
both sides the opportunity to resolve the conflict.
Until recently, U.S. soldiers were directly involved
in this security effort.
Diplomats as well as representatives from the U.S.
Office for Security Cooperation will remain involved
in a regional coordination center after the U.S.
troops are gone, according to Gen. Buchanan.
But many, including Kirkuk's governor, fear this
security mechanism could unravel after U.S. troops
"They are together while the U.S. forces are here
and they will be together if nothing happens," said
Mr. Karim. "But God forbid if the situation changes
you will probably see them split apart, going their
Although the State Department is expected to remain
deeply engaged with these issues, many officials in
places such as Kirkuk fear it won't have the same
authority or ability as the military to control the
potentially explosive situation.
About 22,000 U.S. military personnel remained in
Iraq as of Thursday after the departure of almost
6,000 over the past week according to the military.
—Hassan Hafidh in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in
Washington contributed to this article.
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