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Kurds On A Knife's Edge.

The fate of Kurdistan is directly related to political and security developments in the Arab part of Iraq. State-building in Iraq has already failed. The process took a definitive turn for the worse when Saddam Hussein took over the Ba'thist dictatorship in mid-1979. Specialists argued that Saddam strengthened Iraq, but in fact he contributed to an accelerated process of state failure.

In addition to strong centralisation of state power, the Ba'th initiated a gradual fragmentation of Iraq as a country by alienating the Kurds and Shi'ites. The Iraqi invasion, occupation and annexation of Kuwait in 1990 led to the creation of the no-fly zones in the north and the south in 1992.

Much of Kurdistan was transformed into an independent entity. A gradual de facto separation of the majority of the Kurdish population from the rest of Iraq became a political reality. Separate institutions (parliament, regional government and political parties), infrastructure, security arrangements and economic development all contributed to this process - mainly thanks to US-UK protection.

However, with the fall of Saddam's Ba'thist dictatorship in April 2003 the rules of the game changed. While Arab Iraq collapsed in terms of political authority and administration, Kurdistan maintained its institutions, police and security forces and sustained its economic development. While the US talked about regime change and nation-building, the actual process since mid-2003 has been about how to rebuild the state in Iraq. Kurdish politicians have been involved in reconstructing Iraq. Now the challenge is for the co-ruling Kurdish parties to remain united and avoid being lured by divisive interventions from Iran, Syria and Turkey, as such interventions now appear to be more likely to occur than ever before.

This has been important for Kurdistan on two levels. First, Kurdish politicians have managed to protect Kurdistan and its achievements since 1992. In historical terms this is remarkable, because it is the first time in centuries the Kurds have not been the first to lose out on a major change sweeping the Middle East. Second, talks in Baghdad have made it possible for Kurdistan to share in distribution of power, reconstruction aid and revenues. In this process, Kurdistan's politicians thus far have been able to secure both Kurds' self-rule and Kurdistan's shared rule over the rest of Iraq.

Now, when the prospect of state rebuilding in Iraq does not look very promising and fear of further collapse of the reconstruction process is becoming paramount, the people of Kurdistan are anxiously watching events and pondering Kurdistan's fate in the event that Iraq falls apart. Several issues are at stake.

The future status of the region as recognised now in the new Iraqi constitution will be jeopardised because the document, though approved by a majority of voters in Iraq, will not come into effect before a new government is sworn in. The constitutional state is not yet fully consolidated.

The fate of the Arabised regions, including Kirkuk, will lead to a serious confrontation between Kurdish and Arab groups. In such a scenario, neighbouring countries are likely to encourage and support different factions. Turkey is likely to assist Turkmen groups, while Iran will assist Shi'ite activists in Kirkuk. In that case Syria will assist Sunni Arabs throughout the region. Inter-communal and sectarian tensions and confrontations are a likely outcome of such a development.

Kurdistan's share of income, such as aid and oil revenues, is likely to be put on hold. In a worst-case scenario, neighbouring states will encourage and support Kurdish schisms in an effort to undermine institution-building in Kurdistan. Direct financial and military support to radical organisations and small Turkmen groups will exacerbate any internal disagreement among political parties in Kurdistan. If current security arrangements and political deals crumble, there could be divisions along party, territorial and economic lines, more or less resembling the fighting of the mid-1990s, with additional groups across the borders joining in - the Kurdish Workers Party from Turkey and Neo-Salafi Jihadis from Arab Iraq and Kurdistan. But the political leadership in Kurdistan could manage to sustain current trends and keep Kurdistan safe.

For this to happen the Kurdish coalition would have to avoid institutional breakdown, disengage from political negotiations in Baghdad without alienating the Americans, and adhere to internal deals. In this event, Kurdistan may emerge as a prosperous entity on which US-led forces could rely in a regional context, and an ally to Turkey and NATO.

Tensions in Kirkuk and other Arabised territories might be solved more peacefully than anticipated, due in part to strong unity among Kurds and disunity among Arabs, but also because American officials come to realise that a safe portion of Iraq is better than the whole of Iraq sinking into internal conflict.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Date:Apr 17, 2006
Words:777
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