Kurd-Arab Tensions Raise Concerns and Debate

Stephen DeAngelis

July 23, 2009

Earlier in the week I posted a blog entitled Rising Tensions Between Kurds and Arabs. In that blog, I observed that “there have been calls made by some observers for the United States to negotiate something like the Dayton Accord that helped stop conflict in the Bosnia region of the Balkans. Without such outside intervention, it looks like the two sides are hell-bent on confrontation.” A former member of the Bush administration, Meghan L. O’Sullivan, who is now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, believes that it’s not the negotiation framework that is important it is the substance of such efforts [“Issues Before Identity in Iraq,” Washington Post, 21 July 2009]. She begins her op-ed piece by asserting that the Obama administration looks like it wants to address past historical wrongs rather than current pressing issues. I agree with O’Sullivan that substance not history is what needs to be negotiated. In the post mentioned above, I wrote: “My hope for Iraq has been that improved economic conditions would convince Kurd and Arab leaders that a better and more prosperous future requires cooperation not conflict. In order to cooperate fully, however, both sides must be willing to put the past behind them.” In other words, Kurds and Arabs both need to reach for the future instead of cling to the past. O’Sullivan writes:

“Recent comments by Vice President Biden suggest that U.S. officials’ mind-set toward Iraq could do as much harm as good. While visiting Iraq this month, Biden spoke of a need to broker a grand bargain between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and to resolve disputes between ‘the different confessional groups.’ He made clear that he — and, presumably, the United States — saw Iraq’s challenges and solutions largely in terms of sectarian or ethnic groups. Discussing Iraq’s problems in such terms pushes Iraqis back toward the boxes they have been trying to leave behind — and undermines incipient movement away from the dominance of sectarian political identities toward issues-based politics.”

O’Sullivan goes on to explain why concentrating on issues rather than past historical injustices is important for moving forward. She believes that the most important issue that needs addressing is the very nature of political relationships within Iraq.

“Encouraging this movement toward issues-based politics is arguably the most important component of a strategy to help Iraqis solve their most intractable problems. Too often, differences among Iraqis are portrayed as feuds between primordial rivals, grounded in irrational and emotional stances. … The current tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government are frequently presented simplistically as manifestations of historical animosities between Arabs and Kurds. Certainly, cultural factors do matter, and Iraq’s long history — including, of course, Saddam Hussein’s brutal efforts to eradicate the Kurds — shapes the nature of the problems and the lens through which they are viewed. But the reality is that Iraq’s most difficult problems are primarily about substantive issues. Iraqis and their leaders are divided on fundamental questions about the nature of the state — specifically, whether the locus of power should be in Baghdad or in the provinces. Should Iraq be a more traditional Arab state, where power is centralized in the capital? Or should the regions and the provinces — i.e., the KRG — have substantial authorities and autonomy? This debate is at the heart of what many describe as a Kurdish-Arab conflict. For example, conflicts about the elusive oil law — which Biden will use as a benchmark for gauging progress toward reconciliation — are not really about whether the Shiite government shares Iraq’s wealth with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities. The problems stem from conflicting views about who has the right to develop Iraq’s natural resources — Baghdad, or the regions and provinces? Who has the right to set the terms for international investment and sign contracts to develop Iraq’s oil fields — Baghdad, or the regions and provinces? The disputed territories of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas add another dimension to ‘Kurd-Arab’ tensions, but even those disputes would be easier to resolve were there more clarity over the appropriate roles and future of regional security forces and the Iraqi army.”

The good professor might be correct; however, groups, like the Kurds, that have been targets of genocide don’t set aside the past that easily. They want to be able to control their future, including the riches of their land and the security of their people. With such strongly held views, federalism appears to be the only way forward. On this subject, O’Sullivan remarks:

“Federalism is still the ‘F-word’ in Iraq, even among those who lobby for more authority, resources and responsibilities for the provincial councils. Only within a political system where substance has some hope of being separated from identities are such conflicts likely to be resolved over time.”

Dan Senor, who also served under the Bush administration and is now serving as an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes the two most critical factors driving Kurd-Arab relations are oil and politics [“The Kurdish Issue Flares Up in Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 21 July 2009]. He writes:

“Two factors will drive the Kurdish-Arab issue to a boiling point over the next six months unless the Obama administration heads them off. First, oil. There is still no federal Iraqi hydrocarbons law. The KRG and the Iraqi government rely on different interpretations of Article 111 of the Iraqi Constitution, which declares that ‘oil and gas are the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and governorates.’ Kirkuk’s oil is a big issue for the national government in Baghdad. When Mr. Maliki’s government wrote its federal budget for 2009, oil prices were hovering around $150 per barrel. And while the Iraqi government had wisely forecast prices to fall to $80 per barrel—and made budget projections accordingly—oil prices were still 50% below their projections by mid-year. This has caused panic at Iraq’s Oil and Finance Ministries. From the Kurds’ standpoint, oil is part of a broader KRG strategy to draw international pressure on Baghdad to grant further Kurdish autonomy. It is no coincidence that on the eve of Mr. Maliki’s visit to Washington, the KRG’s Ministry of National Resources released an embarrassing document contrasting its success in attracting foreign energy investors with the national government’s approach, which has been stalled. Second, politics. On Saturday, the Kurds vote on a new parliament and president. While polls show that President Massoud Barzani and the two largest Kurdish parliamentary parties will be re-elected, the dynamic of this election is making Kurdish leaders nervous. Historically, Kurdish elections turned on the KRG’s power struggle with the national government. But in this election, the Iraqi Kurds seem to be more preoccupied with local governance issues such as KRG corruption. This may be prompting KRG officials to foment tension with Baghdad in the hope that the perception of external threats will strengthen their position at the polls.”

Senor is correct that KRG leaders are concerned about corruption. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani launched “a government project which aims to promote good governance, transparency, and integrity in … government operations and practices” [“Prime Minister’s speech at launch of KRG Strategy on Good Governance and Transparency,” 12 July 2009]. During his speech announcing the program, the Prime Minister said:

“We need a national discussion about good governance, about corruption, about improvements of services, and about the best solutions to go forward and achieve our aspirations. When I say discussion, I mean an open discussion with our people, civil society organizations, intellectuals, religious leaders – to address corruption and what it means to our society. We need to understand that corruption is not simply an issue of government; it is an issue of society. It affects us all, and holds us back in the progress toward a better future.”

With the program being launched so close to regional elections, the Prime Minister admitted that it would likely appear to be a simple political ploy to gain votes. He insisted, however, that the program had been in work for over a year. Only time will tell if the program helps improve governance and transparency. Michael E. O’Hanlon, from the left-leaning Brookings Institution, adds revanchist claims to the unstable mix of oil and politics in Iraq [“Iraq’s Northern Problem,” Washington Examiner, 21 July 2009]. He writes:

“The basic situation is this. Kurds make up about 4 million of Iraq’s 25 million population and govern themselves in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. They have been more or less autonomous since Operation Desert Storm in 1991; that status was codified by the Iraqi Constitution in 2005. They get a fixed share of national oil revenue, maintain their own military known as the peshmerga, and represent an admirable democratic minisystem within the broader county. This is a workable model, but for one problem: Kurds want land from Iraq’s other 15 provinces to be incorporated within Iraqi Kurdistan. That includes the historic city of Kirkuk, the oil fields around Kirkuk, and much of the other land just south of Kurdistan. In principle, Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution entitles them to a referendum on redrawing the ‘green line’ separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. The referendum was supposed to have been held by the end of 2007, but has been seen as so incendiary as to be postponed.”

O’Hanlon, like O’Sullivan and me, believes that international involvement is necessary to resolve ongoing issues. He goes on to propose a solution for dealing with the Kurd’s revanchist claims.

“While it is a delicate matter for foreign countries to suggest a solution here, the alternative of waiting for Iraqis to solve it is not working. As such, I will hazard a recommendation. Kirkuk should be a city with special status under international supervision. Mosul should remain in the main part of Iraq. A multisectarian panel aided by U.N. advisers should negotiate a new ‘green line’ in other, more rural parts of the country and explain why this new border between Kurdistan and Iraq proper is fair, if not ideal for anyone. Then a referendum should be held in which all major political figures call for approval. The goal should be to achieve rapid and overwhelming public support – ideally within the next year, while U.S. troops still provide a reassuring and neutral presence. Other approaches could work too, of course. But benign neglect, our strategy so far, probably will not.”

Avoidance of conflict is certainly desirable, but as a goal it is too narrow and as a vision it’s uninspiring. Political leaders in Iraq need to have a grand vision and strategy to match that can help bring their people peace and prosperity. They need to swallow their pride and admit that outside help is probably needed to help them achieve their goals. O’Hanlon believes that time is the enemy in this case and I agree. The longer that issues between Kurds and Arabs go unresolved, the more intractable they could become. Ripeness is always an issue when it comes to negotiations and I believe the time is ripe for international community to sit down with Iraqi leaders and help carve out a better future for their people. During this week’s visit to Washington, DC, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stressed the need for economic development in his country [“Iraq Premier and Obama Emphasize the Positive,” by Jeff Zeleny, New York Times, 22 July 2009]. “Mr. Maliki said Iraq needed to build upon a ‘strategic relationship on the economic front.’ He said Iraq planned to convene an investment conference in October for companies eager to look for business opportunities in the country.” Companies will only be “eager” to do business in Iraq if the security situation remains stable. Let’s hope that cool heads prevail and that an agreement can be worked out that allows all the people of Iraq to look forward to a brighter future.