Crisis Between Kurds and Iraqi Government Needs U.S. Mediation

Daniel P. Serwer, who served as executive director of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq, says the "serious" crisis between Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government "needs to be resolved" to some degree before the U.S. troops leave."

July 13, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.


The central Iraq government is locked in a power struggle with oil-rich, semi-autonomous Kurdistan, and many analysts believe it remains one of Iraq’s most explosive touch points. A leading expert on Iraq, Daniel P. Serwer, who served as executive director of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq, says the "serious" crisis between Kurdistan and the central government "needs to be resolved" to some degree before the U.S. troops leave. And he says U.S. help in the negotiation process will be critical to progress. "With the projected withdrawal of American combat forces in 2010, it’s more urgent than ever to get some sort of resolution," he says, noting that it is possible to imagine actual fighting between Kurdish and Iraqi troops if a resolution isn’t forthcoming. But Serwer says that with the buildup of the Iraqi army, the balance of forces is changing against the Kurds. The Kurds are "anxious to get the Americans to stay, because the Americans help to ensure the status quo," Serwer notes. "It isn’t exactly what the Kurds want, but it’s better than what they might otherwise get."

A lot has been written lately about a deepening political crisis between Kurdistan and the Iraq central government over the future of places like Kirkuk, Mosul, and Diyala Province. How troubling is this, in your estimation?

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I do think it’s serious. It’s one of the conflicts that needs to be resolved, at least to some degree, before the Americans withdraw. It’s not only important to the Kurds and Arabs--it’s been important for five years--but the Americans are the balancing factor between them. With the projected withdrawal of American combat forces in [August] 2010, it’s more urgent than ever to get some sort of resolution.

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Race and Ethnicity

Explain what it is the Kurds really want and what Baghdad wants.

It’s clear what Baghdad wants: Baghdad wants authority over a somewhat autonomous Kurdish region. There’s ambiguity as to the Kurds’ objectives. Most Kurds, in the privacy of their own living rooms, would say ’why should we be part of Iraq? Why can’t we be independent?’ But their geopolitical situation is such that the Kurdish leadership has essentially decided to stick with Iraq, at least nominally, for the time being. The ultimate objective of the Kurds is difficult to determine. It’s ambiguous whether or not most Kurds want to stay in Iraq.

The International Crisis Group just issued a major report examining the fault lines between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government. The ICG seems to be very concerned about violence breaking out between the two once the Americas leave. Is it hard to imagine that there could be fighting up there.

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"It’s clear what Baghdad wants: Baghdad wants authority over a somewhat autonomous Kurdish region. There’s ambiguity as to the Kurds’ objectives."

It’s not all that hard to imagine. But apart from new fighting is this question of what is the balance of forces between the Kurdish forces and the Arab forces. That’s changing rather dramatically with the assistance that the Americans are providing to the Iraqi army. I think the Kurds are acutely aware of the fact that their situation and leverage are not improving. They’re both declining. They’re anxious to get the Americans to stay, because the Americans’ help to ensure the status quo. It isn’t exactly what the Kurds want, but it’s better than what they might otherwise get. Quite apart from independence or not, is the question of how big Kurdistan is. That’s an issue because even if Kurdistan remains part of Iraq, the Kurds claim territories that lay outside the recognized boundaries of Kurdistan. This is what ICG is calling "the trigger line." The Americans play the central role of balancing these forces and ensuring that they don’t come into hostile contact with each other.

When you look at the so-called trigger line, it goes down to Diyala Province and as far north as the Syrian border.

I was in Diyala recently, working with the provincial council there. On the one hand the Arabs and Kurds in the Diyala provincial council are getting on fairly well. But there really is a big question mark on the authority of Kurdistan, and not only over the territory.

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Race and Ethnicity

How important is oil in all of this?

It’s important in several different ways. Obviously, if Kurdistan has enough oil so that it can survive and maybe even thrive without the rest of Iraq makes a big difference. It also makes a big difference if the Kurds calculate that it’s better to have a percentage of Iraqi oil rather than only their own. That seems to be their calculation right now. In addition to their geopolitical situation, which isn’t favorable for independence, they’re figuring that a percentage of all of Iraq’s oil is better than only their own because they’re unsure of what they have. And Iraq has a lot of oil.

To the Iraqis, is the oil in Kurdistan a major factor or is it more the political unity of the country?

I think it’s more the political unity of the country. If it were purely a matter of the oil, I don’t think they’d worry about it as much as they do. They feel Kurdish Iraq is part of Iraq, and they feel very strongly about that. There are Arabs who live in the north, of course, but Arab Iraqis feel the Kurds got a good deal in the constitution and they ought to be happy to stay in Iraq.

Right now under the present constitution, what privileges do the Kurds have?

Enormous privileges. They have their own parliament, their own government; they control most of the educational and cultural aspects of life in Kurdistan. Maybe more important is that they have a very significant share of power in Baghdad as well. They got a very good deal, but the problem is the constitution is at best ambiguous on some questions. The result is that the physical extent of Kurdistan, for example, wasn’t really settled in the constitution. And it’s not always clear what powers the Kurdistan regional government has and what powers the Baghdad government has, and who settles disputes between them is also a point of contention.

There’s no supreme court to rule on this?

There is, but it’s not clear whether that court could decide in favor of the Baghdad government and make it stick on many issues.

Maliki is planning a major campaign in January to emerge again as prime minister after next January’s important elections to the national parliament. In an interview he had with the Wall Street Journal, he seemed to be bending over backwards to appear conciliatory. Is there great tension between him and the president of Kurdistan?

"Arab Iraqis feel the Kurds got a good deal in the constitution and they ought to be happy to stay in Iraq."

Yes, there’s been great tension between Maliki and the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani. Maliki, who was originally chosen as prime minister because he appeared to be a relatively weak figure, has now become a relatively strong figure. With all of the political forces who once supported him--the Kurds, with the Shiite political parties, and the Sunni political parties--he now has the problem of returning as prime minister, which means patching up some of the quarrels he’s had with these groups.

And that includes the Kurds.

It could include the Kurds. It’s very unclear where the clear majority in the Iraqi parliament will come from in January. It behooves any politician who wants to become prime minister to be on good terms with as many of the political forces as possible. And there are a lot of them because there’s quite a bit of fragmentation among Iraqi political parties.

What about Mosul? Is that the most dangerous area?

Right now it’s the most dangerous area, partly because in the provincial elections held last January a strong Arab nationalist local political party was returned to a majority in the provincial council. There’s been quite a bit of tension up there between Kurds and Arabs. Mosul is a very important city, and the geographical configuration of Kurdistan, which kind of swings around Mosul, makes things difficult as well. It’s unclear how things will shake out there, but I think if you asked Americans in Iraq what the most dangerous place is [they’d say] Nineveh province, where Mosul is, or possibly Kirkuk, where tensions between Arabs and Kurds are high. That tension includes Turkmens as well.

There’s been a UN commission attempting to defuse the tensions in Kirkuk. Have they done much work?

The UN has done what is reported as a lot of good work on trying to determine, district by district, what the historic and cultural roots of each individual district are. Are they more Kurdish speaking or are they more Arabic speaking [people]? They’ve done a good deal of that work. What they haven’t done is say, "Here’s the solution. Here’s what you ought to do." The UN is not in a position to do that. The United Nations, in order to have much clout in this matter, needs a lot of U.S. backing. The moment for that kind of heavy hitting by the U.S. probably hasn’t come yet.

In other words, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds all moved outside the so-called green line that defined their borders.

Yes. The UN is trying to determine on a very microscopic basis who really deserves to be in control. But they’re not dictating to the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan regional government what the outcome should be. They’re just presenting the elements for a decision. They’re going to have to get beyond that and have some very serious negotiations with the United States at some point.

And the United States up until now really hasn’t sponsored any formal talks, have they?

They haven’t. They’ve tried to leave it up to the UN. The UN has done a good job, but it can only go so far.

I noticed that Maliki says he spoke to Vice President Joseph Biden about this when Biden visited Baghdad after the first troop withdrawal from the cities. And he said Biden agreed with him that this had to be negotiated. Biden spoke by phone with Kurdish leaders. So I guess that’s the start, right?

That’s the start. What Biden seems to be saying so far, and I’m not privy to the private communications, is basically that they have to sort this out among themselves. Probably in the end, there will need to be a heavier American hand than that. Though the degree to which they can sort it out between themselves is the best solution.

In the ICG report, it urges the U.S. government to exercise "strong pressure on Iraqi parties and deploy political, diplomatic, military and financial resources to ensure a responsible troop withdrawal from Iraq that leaves behind a sustainable state, through a peaceful and durable accommodation of the Arab and Kurdish population." That’s all great in principle, but possible?

It’s great in principle. The degree to which they can come to a resolution of the territorial issue themselves is a good thing, and in the end I suspect the United States, the UN, and others will have to weigh in pretty heavily to get that. Some of the last tough issues like the center of Kirkuk still remain, which many see as compromisable, which would give it a special status.


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