Iraq's tipping point
By Arnaud de Borchgrave
During Saddam Hussein's blood-soaked rule, he ordered the ethnic
cleansing of Kurds, the Arabization of their lands and their forcible
removal from Kirkuk, the northern Iraqi city at the center of 40
percent of Iraq's oil reserves.
The Kurds, 20 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, thus lost
control of a city they claim is theirs. They now want it back as the
capital of their semiautonomous Kurdish region. But both Sunni and
Shi'ite Iraqis are opposed, and the stalemate could provide the spark
for a much-feared civil war.
Brits, with long colonial experience in Iraq, say Kirkuk, not the
insurgency, is the tipping point between success and failure for the
U.S. attempt to introduce democratic rule.
A coalition of Shi'ite Iraqis and another alliance of the two main
groups of Kurds, who are not Arabs, between them garnered 215 seats in
the 275-member national assembly. The Sunnis, for the most part
boycotted the national elections Jan. 30.
The Shi'ites have 140 seats, just shy of a majority. But they can
count on support from small splinter factions to block the Kurds from
seizing both Kirkuk and the surrounding oil wealth. But Kurds already
control the Kirkuk city council with 59 percent of the vote. They are
determined to right the wrongs of the Saddam regime -- by force if
necessary. The Kurdish militia -- the 80,000-strong peshmerga, which
means "those who face death" -- are the best troops in Iraq outside
coalition forces. They were also the only Iraqis to fight alongside
U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They have done well against
insurgents in the three mainly Kurdish northern provinces in Mosul,
Kirkuk and Tal Afar.
Under an agreement last June, peshmerga were to disband and be
absorbed into Iraq's army, security and police forces. Some now wear
Iraqi uniforms but still consider themselves an autonomous Kurdish
force. The authoritative London-based "Jane's Foreign Report (March 17)
said, "For some time now, largely unnoticed by the outside world, there
have been repeated clashes between the Kurds and their rivals in Kirkuk
and other northern towns."
The International Crisis Group in Brussels said: "Tensions in the
Kirkuk region, where the political ambitions, historical claims and
economic interests of the principal communities -- Kurds, Arabs,
Turkomen and Chaldo-Assyrians -- clash, have been escalating since U.S.
forces toppled the Ba'athist regime in 2003. Violence is assuming a
The ingredients for a civil war are in place. Such a conflict could
rapidly escalate regionally, dragging in Turkey, Iran and Syria:
Turkey, because it fears an independent Kurdish state would become a
magnet for Turkish Kurds; Syria, because it also has a Turkish minority
and would welcome an opportunity to sabotage America's democratic
experiment; Iran, because it wants Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government
to prevail. The Kurds cannot recover confiscated lands without
dispossessing the Arabs who replaced them in the 1970s and '80s.
But the Kurds also hold a trump card short of hostilities. The
Transitional Administrative Law, written in 2004 by the Interim
Governing Council under U.S. guidance, says a permanent constitution
can be vetoed if three of the 18 provinces fail to ratify. Kurds
control three provinces in the north.
Jalal Talabani, one of two principal Kurdish leaders, was to become
president of the new Iraq, a largely ceremonial post, and Shi'ite
leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari the new prime minister. Iyad Allawi, a
secular Shi'ite with 40 seats in the national assembly, who is still
prime minister may still be the compromise candidate to see Iraq
through the rest of the year.
Whatever happens, the Kurds, who have known nothing but betrayal by
the powers in the 20th century, are not about to give ground on Kirkuk
and its oil revenues. Mr. Talabani calls the city "the Jerusalem of
Kurdistan." Massoud Barzani, the other principal Kurdish leader, says,
"We are ready to fight and sacrifice our soul to preserve [Kirkuk's]
A unitary democratic Iraq is the U.S. goal. If the Kurds have their
way, Shi'ites in the south would find salvation with 60 percent of
Iraq's oil and a closer relationship with Iran. The Sunnis, high and
dry in the center of the country, would take the insurgency to new
heights of violence. The failure of negotiations would spell disaster.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and
of United Press International.
3 april 2005?