Rising Tensions Between Kurds and Arabs

Stephen DeAngelis

July 20, 2009

Regular readers of this blog know that my company, Enterra Solutions, conducts an increasing amount of business in Iraq — mostly in the northern Kurdish region. Our aim is to help Iraqi businesses become more connected with each other and with the rest of the world. One way we have done this is through our business-to-business trading exchange [Enterra One World Shop Iraq]. We recently announced signing of the 1,000th business as a member of the exchange. 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. Unfortunately, that has not occurred and tensions continue to rise along with mistrust between Arabs and Kurds [“Kurdish Leaders Warn Of Strains With Maliki,” by Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, 17 July 2009]. Shadid reports that “Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region and the Iraqi government are closer to war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.”

There are lots of reasons that civil war between the Kurds and Arabs would be disastrous not the least of which is that scarce resources needed for development would be diverted to non-productive activities. Conflict would not just delay economic progress it could easily undo much of the progress that has already been made. Civil war, coming on the heels of the insurgency, is not the outcome the U.S. Government hoped for. Shadid continues:Kurdistan

“In separate interviews, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, described a stalemate in attempts to resolve long-standing disputes with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s emboldened government. Had it not been for the presence of the U.S. military in northern Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani said, fighting might have started in the most volatile regions.”

The “volatile regions” are those noted by the red & white stripes in the attached image. These are regions that Kurds claim as traditional homeland but now are home to a majority Arab population thanks to Saddam Hussein’s “Arabification” program of those regions. The area around Kirkuk is especially volatile because it is rich in oil and an acceptable oil-sharing plan has yet to be worked out. If outstanding issues can’t be resolved through negotiation, the future of the region could be negatively affected for years if not decades. Shadid continues:

“U.S. officials have warned that the ethnic conflict pitting Kurds against Arabs, or more precisely the Kurdish regional government against Maliki’s federal government in Baghdad, poses the greatest threat to Iraq’s stability and could persist for years.”

To read more about the underlying issues, read my posts entitled The Challenge of Kirkuk and Nastiness in Nineveh. Shadid sums up the situation this way:

“The conflict between the government and the Kurdish region is so explosive because it intersects with the most critical disputes that still endanger the country’s stability. They include debate over a hydrocarbon law to share revenue and manage Iraq’s enormous oil reserves, some of which are located in areas claimed by the Kurdish government; talks to delineate the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions; and efforts to resolve the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city shared by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. Complicating the landscape is the bad blood between two of the key players — Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, and Maliki, whose stature has grown dramatically amid the restoration of a semblance of calm and his Dawa party’s success in provincial elections in January. Although two delegations from Maliki’s party have visited Irbil, the Kurdish capital, since the spring, the two men have not spoken in a year, Barzani said. ‘Everything is frozen,’ said Prime Minister Barzani, a nephew of the president. ‘Nothing is moving.’ He warned that the deadlock was untenable. ‘If the problems are not solved and we’re not sitting down together, then the risk of military confrontation will emerge,’ he said. Both have blamed the other side for provocations, often with justification. Kurdish officials see in Maliki’s actions a recurrence of what they believe is arrogance from Baghdad stretching back generations. Maliki’s allies accuse Kurdish leaders of overreaching in their territorial ambitions and stubbornness in talks.”

The situation between the Kurds and Arabs is one where each side seems willing to “cut off their nose to spite their face.” 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. Yet there remains a glimmer of hope. It was just over a month ago that Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, spoke the following words at a ceremony celebrating the first exports of oil from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq through an Iraqi pipeline:

“‘We must stress tolerance between Arabs and Kurds – we have had a sense of brotherhood and this will remain.’ He added, ‘This is an historic event, not only for the Kurdish people but for all Iraqis.’ President Barzani said, ‘We have proven in a clear, proper way that we are committed to the Constitution of Iraq. I congratulate everyone on this achievement, which will benefit all Iraqis.’ He added, ‘I wish much success for all the people of Iraq and of the Kurdistan Region; that we may live in prosperity and peace.'”

The “brotherhood” of which President Barzani speaks and his wish for “prosperity and peace” need to become motivating drivers as Kurds and Arabs move forward in Iraq. If conflict breaks out, Kurds and Arabs will both suffer and economic goals could be set back a generation.