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IRAQ - The Turkey-Kurdistan Front.

A major new threat is emerging in the Kurdish north. If not defused, this crisis could draw foreign military intervention, splintering Iraq further apart and undermining US hopes for long-term military bases in Kurdistan. The core issue is Kurdish nationalism which worries Turkey, a country with a substantial Kurdish minority.

The Kurds have been the most reliable partner of the US in Iraq, while Turkey is a crucial ally in the region. But in recent weeks, this strategy has been breaking down. Iraqi Kurds push their politicians towards defiant assertions of independence; Turks are demanding that their leaders move to crush the Kurds.

The Bush administration, realising it was drifting towards a confrontation over the Kurdish issue, in 2006 appointed retired air force general Joseph Ralston as a special envoy. His mission is to urge the Iraqis to crack down on the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which uses Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging point. Ankara denounces the PKK as a terrorist group and threatens that if the US does not take decisive action to suppress it, the Turkish military will. Ralston warned Washington in December that Turkey might invade by end-April unless the US contained the PKK. The Daily Star of Beirut on April 19 quoted an analyst as saying the Turks may seize a border strip about 13 km deep into Iraq.

Ralston tries his best to defuse the crisis, clearing a Kurdish refugee camp of suspected PKK members and talking regularly with both sides. But the time bomb continues to tick.

A flashpoint is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurds, which Turkey regards as a special protectorate because of its large Turkmen population. The new Iraqi constitution calls for a referendum by December on the city's future, and the Kurds are confident they will win the vote. Ankara, fearing the same outcome, wants the referendum delayed. The Bush administration seems to favour a delay but has not said so publicly, to avoid angering the Kurds and undermining the constitution.

Kurdistan President Mas'oud Barzani recently warned that if Turkey meddled in Kirkuk, "then we will take action for the 30m Kurds in Turkey". The head of the Turkish General Staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, responded that "from an exclusively military point of view", he favoured an invasion of Iraq to clean out PKK havens. If Turkey does attack, counters one Kurdish official, "their own border will not be respected".

A wild card in this problem is Iran. Like Turkey, Iran has a restless Kurdish minority and would be tempted to intervene militarily against a militant group PJAK which operates out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Top Iranian military officers met in Ankara recently with the Turkish General Staff about possible military contingencies in Iraq. Iran has recently shelled Kurdish targets inside Iraq, and Iran-backed Islamist groups have attacked border posts in northern Iraq. Kurdish officials suspect Iran wants to destabilise Kurdistan, partly to damage wider US policy aims in Iraq

Adding to this is growing tension between the US and Kurdish leaders. The Kurds were furious when they were not given prior notice about a US special forces raid in January to snatch two top officers of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at Arbil airport. Unwitting Kurdish Peshmerga troops at the airport nearly opened fire on the Americans. Although the airport raid was a failure, US forces arrested five IRGC men in Arbil in a move which embarrassed the Kurdish leadership.

The Sadr Issue & Changing US Priority: A statement read on April 16 by Sadrist parliamentary leader Nasser al-Ruba'ie, Sadr's six ministers will "withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government...,with the hope they will be... [replaced by] independents who represent the will of the people". Maliki had hoped Sadr might give his blessing to a new set of ministers, rather than wash his hands of the government. The Sadrists are a key part of the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) which dominates the government, and their base is much larger than that of Maliki's al-Da'wa al-Islamiya.

Sadrists complain a US-Iraqi crackdown has "unfairly" targeted Jaysh al-Mahdi, and that their communities are left vulnerable as a result. But Sadr had ordered his followers not to attack US or Iraqi government troops as they stepped up operations in Sadrist strongholds. Militiamen were already chafing under those restrictions, and the Sadrists' pullout from government may be seen by some commanders as a green light to step up attacks.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on April 19 arrived in Baghdad and on April 20 pressed Maliki to move faster on Sunni-Shi'ite reconciliation. Gates cited the need for Maliki to pass laws the Bush administration had long sought on the sharing of oil revenue and a rollback of purges of Sunni Arabs from the government; he warned the US military build-up was not open-ended, saying: "I'm sympathetic to some of the challenges they face" but "the clock is ticking... Frankly, I would like to see faster progress" on "getting some of these laws enacted".

The visit brought into focus the starkly different realities that drive the two governments. Pushing the US timetable is the campaigning for the 2008 presidential elections, which will accelerate after Labour Day. Driving Maliki are divisive sectarian and ethnic forces in his government and a tenacious Sunni Arab insurgency. The result is that the US and Iraqi governments appear almost to be talking past each other.

The Americans, along with moderate Iraqi politicians, say the key to peace in Iraq and ultimately to a US withdrawal is real power-sharing among Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. But each group is reluctant to make any compromise which might reduce its leverage.

The New York Times on April 19 quoted a "senior Iraqi official, who is not from the governing Shi'ite bloc", as saying: "We need a grand bargain among Iraqis. We thought that the Constitution would do it, but it did not. There is no way this will be fixed by August, but I think it's fair for President Bush to expect some demonstrable progress by August. Bush should expect this and should push for it".

Complicating Maliki's project are his efforts to open negotiations with the Sunni Arab insurgency to stem the violence. But it is difficult to cut deals with the insurgency because it has many factions and they do not have a united bargaining position. The US list of must-haves are two pieces of legislation in addition to the oil law and the rollback of de-Ba'thification. The additional measures are a rewrite of how powers are divided between the regions and the central government in the constitution and the setting of a date for provincial elections.

The NYT quoted Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki, as saying the PM lacked the power to push those through, no matter how much pressure the US put on him, adding: "These matters should be approved by the Council of Representatives (parliament), not by the government. The government just puts forward the drafts. The cabinet can encourage the Council of Representatives to accelerate to approve these laws. Otherwise, the prime minister does not have any authority to approve these laws".

Rikabi said Maliki relied on co-operation from the various political blocs, and the co-operation "differs from one bloc to another, and from one issue to another". The problem is that parliament operates effectively by consensus and it is made up of ethnic and sectarian groups which disagree sharply on major issues. Maliki belongs to the UIA, a religious Shi'ite bloc led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a Tehran-backed cleric who does not serve in parliament. Maliki wields limited power within his bloc and relies on support from often-feuding Shi'ite factions. But that goes to the very heart of much of the strife in Iraq. Neither side wants to concede that it will have less than a complete hold on power.

Maliki's Shi'ite ranks include hardliners reluctant to share any power with Sunni Arabs and factions divided among themselves on some key policies, such as whether to allow provinces to form semi-autonomous regions. Already Maliki is risking Shi'ite loyalties by pressing forward with negotiations with some insurgent groups in the hope of stemming the violenc. His government has met with representatives of several militant groups.

The greatest success so far is that in Anbar Province and now in Diyala Province, it appears that some indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups are breaking with al-Qaeda, this is according to Humam Hummoudi, chairman of parliament's International Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the main rival of the Sadrists. But the coalescence against a common enemy has not yet added up to a truce.

The NYT quoted a "Western diplomat who follows the negotiations" as saying: "At the moment the government is essentially in the very early stages of negotiating with the insurgents. Both sides want to talk, which is good. The next steps are what can both sides offer the other".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Date:Apr 23, 2007
Words:1496
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