At their White House meeting today, President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will discuss the escalating conflict between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds. Tensions have almost turned into warfare in recent months, especially following the Iraqi Army's deployment of its 12th Division in Kirkuk late last year. It is a critical time for the U.S. to play a constructive role, but this cannot happen if Mr. Obama throws away his most potent card: a clear signal that he is prepared to slow down planned U.S. troop withdrawals.
How did Iraq arrive at this new flashpoint? Between the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 and the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, Iraqi Kurds lived in a semi-autonomous region. The informal border-called the Green Line-stretched from just north of Diyala and Kirkuk, and cut through part of Ninewa. Ever since, the Kurds have had their own parliament and ministries, control over all the cultural institutions in the region, and their own militia called the peshmerga.
Providing the Kurds with a protected region made perfect moral and geopolitical sense. Saddam had repeatedly attempted genocidal campaigns against them: the Anfal depopulation campaign in 1987-88, in which the Baathist regime killed or expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds; the expulsion of thousands of Fayli (Shiite) Kurds from northern Iraq into Iran; and the 1988 slaughter of 5,000 Kurds with chemical weapons in Halabja.
In April 2003, the peshmerga helped the U.S. fight Saddam-not just in the Kurdish area but also south of the Green Line. When it came to Kirkuk, however, the Kurds moved in during the war and never left. With Saddam gone, the Kurds quickly set up Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) offices in the city and began to establish facts on the ground.
From the Kurdish point of view, all this was natural and just. Before Saddam's brutal expulsions during his Arabization campaign, Kirkuk had a Kurdish majority.
Iraq's post-Saddam interim constitution-which we in the Coalition Provisional Authority helped the Iraqis draft-recognized Kurdish authority only over the territories that the Kurds controlled before the fall of the regime. The permanent Iraqi Constitution went a step further in requiring a referendum to determine the future status of Kirkuk. While both articles clearly left Kirkuk outside the jurisdiction of the KRG in the near term, the language also conceded that Kirkuk and other nearby areas were "disputed territories." In the eyes of the Kurds, this ambiguity left the door open.
At that time, resolving the Kurdish issue was subordinated to the urgent need to address the Sunni insurgency and the growing power of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia. Today the threats from Iraqi al Qaeda and the Sadrists are significantly diminished.
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.
As for Mr. Maliki, he must prepare for national elections in January. Tapping into Iraqi-Arab nationalism is to his political advantage. In short, the political schedule all but ensures that there will be no grand Baghdad-Erbil bargain soon.
Kurdish leaders are deeply concerned about the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Under the current timeline, most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the summer 2010, with 35,000 to 50,000 remaining through the end of 2011, at which point all U.S. forces must be gone. Mr. Obama should consider slowing the withdrawal schedule. The willingness of the Kurds to negotiate will decrease if they believe U.S. forces will not be there to help enforce an agreement. In addition, the U.S. government must be sensitive to the possibility that al Qaeda may see an opportunity in the north to support an Arab cause.
There is pressure building within the Pentagon to cut forces in Iraq even faster than planned to send more troops to Afghanistan. That pressure should be resisted. We must not do in Iraq what Mr. Obama, when campaigning last year for the job of commander in chief, said we did in Afghanistan: lose a key fight by focusing too intently on another theater.
Mr. Senor is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as a senior adviser to the coalition in Iraq and was based in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004.
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