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All’s Not Quiet on Iraq’s Northern Front

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 23, 2007

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Kurdistan has been called, in something of a stretch, the Switzerland of Iraq. Peaceful and picturesque, the region has been spared from the sectarian violence (TIME) that has afflicted the rest of the country.

But Lebanon also drew comparisons to Switzerland before it descended into chaos in the 1970s. Similarly, Iraqi Kurdistan risks becoming embroiled in conflict (AP). A wave of Iraqi Arab refugees has flooded its borders. An uneasy truce between the two dominant Kurdish political parties holds despite tensions. And recent cross-border incursions from Iran and Turkey portend dark days ahead (Jamestown Foundation).

At issue is the unresolved status of the region’s 20 million Kurds, the bulk of whose population is scattered (WashPost) around the juncture of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. None of these countries wants their Kurdish minorities to obtain outright independence, although Iraq has offered them language rights and limited autonomy. As this new Backgrounder explains, tensions between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have risen in recent months over a series of boilerplate statements made by top officials on both sides. Turkey objects to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan being used as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has long been embroiled in a battle to wrest Kurdish independence from Ankara.

Another hot-button issue is the unsettled status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq. A number of ethnic groups—Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen—claim Kirkuk as their own. The city was Arabized under Saddam, but a recent influx of Kurds has the regional Kurdish authorities hoping to incorporate it into their enclave. A referendum, slated for later this year as mandated by the Iraqi constitution, remains the Kurds’ best hope at resolving the issue. Kurdish leaders have threatened to pull out of the government (AP) if their demands are not met. But others, including the Turks, hope to see the referendum postponed if not shelved permanently, leaving Kirkuk under the protectorate of the federal government. Experts say a peaceful solution looks unlikely without more active involvement from outside powers.

Enter the United States, which of late has focused largely on pacifying Baghdad. A new report by the International Crisis Group recommends that Washington press the Kurds, Baghdad government, and Turks to make concessions and “focus on a fair and acceptable process”; if the referendum goes forward under the objections of Iraq’s Turkmen and Arab communities, the report states, then “civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region.” Writes Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Left unresolved, “Kirkuk is as likely as Baghdad to produce a calamity that can fracture Iraq.” But the United States has taken a hands-off approach on Kirkuk and the Kurdish issue at large. “From the U.S. perspective, we have enough people shooting at us,” CFR’s Steven Cook tells Bernard Gwertzman. “We don’t need a new group of people shooting at us.”

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