Kurd Success Fosters Arab Anger

Stephen DeAngelis

February 01, 2008

The economic success of the Kurdistan region of Iraq was inevitably going to raise tensions between northern and southern Iraq. That is one of the primary reasons that the Pentagon’s Business Transformation Agency constantly stresses the importance of getting businesses up and running throughout the country, not just in Kurdistan. According to a New York Times article, things are rapidly coming to a boil as the Arabs perceive the Kurds trying to punch above their weight [“Kurds’ Power Wanes as Arab Anger Rises,” by Alissa J. Rubin, 1 February 2008].

“As a minority group in Iraq, the Kurds have enjoyed disproportionate influence in the country’s politics since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But now their leverage appears to be declining as tensions rise with Iraqi Arabs, raising the specter of another fissure alongside the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites. The Kurds, who are mostly Sunni but not Arab, have steadfastly backed the government, most recently helping to keep it afloat when Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki lacked support from much of Parliament. With their political acumen, close ties to the Americans and technical competence at running government agencies, the Kurds cemented a position of enormous strength. This allowed them to all but dictate terms in Iraq’s Constitution that gave them considerable regional autonomy and some significant rights in oil development. But now the Kurds are pursuing policies that are antagonizing the other factions. The Kurds’ efforts to seize control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and to gain a more advantageous division of national revenues are uniting most Sunnis and many Shiites with Mr. Maliki’s government in opposition to the Kurdish demands. For the United States, the diminution in Kurdish power is part of a larger problem of political divisiveness that has plagued its efforts to build a functioning government in Iraq. While several political parties can come together to address a particular issue, none can seem to form the lasting allegiances needed for actual governance. The Kurds, with their pro-American outlook, were a natural ally. But now the Americans are increasingly placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the Kurds, whom they have long supported and protected, and the Iraqi Arabs, whose government the Americans helped create.”

There are, of course, two sides to every story. Every oppressed minority longs for a sanctuary where they can feel safe and go about their daily business unmolested. The Kurds believe they have finally secured such a sanctuary and will do all in their power to preserve and improve it. But the rate of development in northern and southern Iraq has been so startlingly different, that it was bound to create tensions. Like most people, Iraqi Arabs believe that money is going to solve all of their problems and they begrudge sending a dinar more than they have to into a region they already see as prosperous. Money, of course, is not the root of the south’s problems — security is. Get a handle on the security situation and you give development a chance to gain a foothold. Nevertheless, rising Arab anger is starting to press against continued Kurdish aspirations.

“Humam Hamoudi, a leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [a Shi’ite group], said, ‘They are no longer the egg in the balance,’ using an Arabic proverb that refers to the item that tips the scale. Mr. Hamoudi added, ‘The Kurds are not so powerful.’ Independent analysts largely back that assertion. ‘There’s a strong feeling that the Kurds have overreached,’ said Joost Hiltermann, a senior analyst for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group who is based in Istanbul. ‘The Kurds had their eye on independence in the long term, and they wanted to use the current window to increase the territory they hold and the powers they exercise within the territory,’ he added. ‘They’ve done well on the powers, but not so well on the territory. They now face real restrictions.’ The jousting threatens to undermine much of what the Kurds have achieved in political influence and to supersede, at least temporarily, the far deeper divide between Sunnis and Shiites. And by helping unite Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds’ overreaching has strengthened the hand of Mr. Maliki despite widespread doubts about his ability to govern effectively. The tensions could even persuade the central government to further postpone an already delayed referendum on whether to make Kirkuk part of the Kurds’ semiautonomous region.”

The Kurds certainly have an eye on oil revenues they could generate from reserves under Kirkuk, but they also have an eye on history and well remember the forced Arabization of Kirkuk in the 1970s. Prior to that, Kirkuk was clearly an ethnic Kurd city. But it will be oil revenue rather than history that will remain the tension point, even though history will play a role.

“The Kurds have been locked for decades in a power struggle with Sunni Arabs, most recently with Mr. Hussein. That led to the Hussein government’s Anfal campaign, in which about 180,000 Kurds died and 2,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, according to Kurdish counts. The United States and its allies created a no-flight zone over the Kurdish areas after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and the areas have since become increasingly affluent. While much of Iraq has been engulfed in violence since 2003, Kurdistan has been notably peaceful, with streams of foreign investment and a building boom in Erbil, the largest city. Against that backdrop, the Kurdish aspiration to bring more territory, including Kirkuk, into its semiautonomous region looks greedy to the Arabs. In a signal of its displeasure, Parliament has refused to approve a new budget because it awards the Kurds 17 percent of the total revenues, which many representatives say is more than their share based on population. Because Iraq has not had a census in decades, it is impossible to know the true size of the Kurdish population. Some Kurdish leaders say it could be 23 percent; some Arabs say it is 13 percent.”

The inability to agree on a formula for sharing oil revenues is not good for Iraq. It will continue to encourage the Kurds to seek separate oil deals. If a federated Iraq is to survive, revenue sharing must be ironed out. Oil revenue isn’t the only sticking point.

“The Kurds are also believed to collect millions of dollars in duties on goods coming into Iraq but they neither send the money to Baghdad nor share accounts of the income, according to the International Monetary Fund. Parliament members are also angered that the Kurds want Baghdad to pay salaries of their militia, the pesh merga, from the Defense Ministry’s budget. The pesh merga operate primarily in Kurdistan rather than serving the country as a whole. However, the Kurds contend that in the event of an invasion they would be on the front lines. Such a situation seems all too real to the Kurds, because Turkey has recently threatened to invade to rout the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party. The rebels have been mounting attacks over the border into Turkish territory.”

Officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government are certainly aware of the growing anger and are trying to minimize it.

“The Kurds acknowledge that they are worried by the opposition that has developed, although they are reluctant to concede that they may have overplayed their hand. ‘It is necessary to keep such feelings to a minimum,’ [Ros Shawees, a Kurd and former vice president of Iraq] said. ‘We have to work in different respects to show that the Kurdish region doesn’t just make demands and take things, but that the region is an example for all regions and it can benefit all Iraq.’ For now, however, the budget has yet to be approved, the oil law and revenue sharing laws are in limbo, and there is a new and visible fault line on the Iraqi political scene.”

The Kurdistan region can still prove to me the shining example on the hill that the U.S. would like it to be, but only if development in the south starts to catch up with development in the north. That is what the Business Transformation Agency is trying to accomplish and Enterra Solutions is trying to help.