Friday, December 18, 2009

The Landmine Iraq Can't Defuse

There is one unresolved issue that is as potentially lethal to the future of Iraq today as it was long before Saddam was toppled. It's the fate of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields that account for about 25% of Iraq's known oil reserves.

Kirkuk was a Kurdish city before Saddam instituted a policy of cleansing it of Kurds and settling Arabs in their place. When Saddam fell there was a bit of reverse ethnic-engineering that saw Arabs vacate the city and Kurds returned.

The Kurds occupy the northern part of Iraq under what's known as the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Call it a form of "sovereignty association" if you like. They've always been adamant that Kirkuk was theirs and, after restoring the Arab/Kurd balance to their liking, have been calling for a referendum to settle the question. It's a referendum that kept being postponed to avoid tearing Iraq into pieces. That would look something like an Arab Iraq and a Kurdistan in the north but some feel the south would itself break along religious lines leaving a Shiite Arab south, a Sunni Arab central state and Kurdistan in the north.

The Kurds still want their referendum and they want those Kirkuk oil fields and they're getting impatient. Ever since Desert Storm the Kurds have been under the protection of the Americans. In the early years after Saddam was removed, the Kurdish north was America's only safe haven within Iraq. The Kurds have good reason to expect the Americans will side with them now over Kirkuk.

But, it's not that easy. It's never that simple. America made a bucketful of costly blunders when it occupied and administered Iraq. One was to take the Kurds for granted. Bremer assumed they would go along with whatever he wanted and they didn't. Instead they forced the new Iraqi constitution to incorporate their own Kurdish constitution. That was tantamount to screwing the fuze into the grenade.

The Kurdish constitution, drafted with the guidance of controversial American foreign service staffer Peter Galbraith, sets out the groundwork for the whole Kirkuk business and for Kurdish independence. With the advent of a post-Saddam Iraqi government the Kurds realized they had more to gain by remaining within Iraq provided the Kirkuk issue went their way. If they separate they face the prospect of a very hostile, very well armed Turkey on their border.

But, but, but - this is politics. The Americans have cooled to the Kurds and their dreams of independence and the last thing they want is anybody - Kurd or Arab - to pull the pin on Kirkuk and blow Iraq all to hell. The neighbourhood is just too dangerous for that with the Shia south drawn into Iran's orbit, the Sunni centre aligning with Syria and the Kurdish north at war with their Arab countrymen to the south as well as Turkey.

So intractable has the problem become that there's talk of a United Nations mandate to administer Kirkuk. There are equally vexing problems concerning how Iraq's oil wealth is to be apportioned and whether, as the Kurdish constitution insists, undeveloped oil fields within the Kurdish Autonomous Region (including Kirkuk) belong to the Kurds alone. Finally, there's the thorny problem of remilitarization of Iraq so that it can defend itself against its neighbours if need be. Again, the problem is how to arm the Iraqi Arabs without allowing them to become a threat to the northern Kurds.

For all the hoopla about the "Surge" and how Iraq has been pacified, none of these key issues has been resolved. Not one. And they're not going away. If anything they're worsening. One thing is clear. America has a lot to do before it can leave Iraq.


LeDaro said...

Good post. However, Americans have created more problems than solved them. Besides one million Iraqi dead because of war, millions other live in squalor and still millions others are refugees in neighbouring countries. The divide between Shiites and Sunnis is worse than during Saddam regime. Then of course, as you point out, Kurd situation is worse. U.S has to tread very carefully because it cannot afford to alienate its ally Turkey. U.S invasion and aftermath is a disaster of horrendous proportion.

The Mound of Sound said...

This whole Middle East fiasco reveals the problems inevitable when one nation acts with vague, conflicting and inconsistent policies. It makes it almost impossible to do anyone any good. It renders you unable to discern friend from foe which, as you churn through your agenda, inevitably leaves you with more foes and very weakened friends. You wind up with schizophrenic diplomacy that can destabilize dangerous situations.