The Kurds’ Opportunity – Wall Street Journal

The Kurds’ Opportunity | Ranj Alaaldin | Wall Sreet Journal

In the three weeks since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq, the country has suffered terrorist attacks among the worst it has seen in recent times. One followed just days after the U.S. withdrawal on Dec. 18; another in Baghdad on Monday killed at least 11, in a suicide attack similar to one just four days earlier that killed 70.

The deterioration in security follows a political crisis that engulfed the country and inflamed existing sectarian tensions just hours after the last U.S. convoy left last month. The crisis revolves around an arrest warrant issued against Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an important representative of Iraq’s Sunni community. The warrant was issued by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the basis of Mr. Hashimi’s alleged complicity in terrorism and death squads.

The vice president denies these charges and accuses Mr. Maliki of concocting the allegations as part of an attempt to increase the Shia hold on power. Mr. Maliki is head of the Shia Islamic Dawa Party and leads a Shia-dominated but vulnerable coalition government. Unless a national conference proposed by Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani takes place and reconciles the differences between the warring factions in Baghdad, the coalition is likely to schism or fall apart completely.

Hence the Kurds, an important U.S. ally in Iraq, have an opportunity to determine the country’s fate now that American troops have left it, and to help the country avoid another Sunni-Shia sectarian war. As well as being outsiders to the Arab conflict in Baghdad, the Kurds have also given sanctuary to Mr. Hashimi, who fled to the Kurdish north after the warrant was issued against him.

The Kurds can exploit the divisions in Baghdad by handing Mr. Hashimi over to Mr. Maliki in return for vital concessions, or they can play nice and promote a process of reconciliation. Neither option is likely to resolve the underlying issues entirely, but the opportunities presented by the crisis exposes what are likely to be important dynamics in Iraq after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Capitalizing on sectarian divisions in Baghdad is tempting for the Kurds, abandoned in many ways by President Obama. Iraq is still dominated by fiercely anti-Kurdish sentiments and hostile neighbors keen on limiting the Kurds’ autonomy. Despite repeated requests for viable, long-term protection, Washington has given them nothing.

The U.S. acquiescence has emboldened Baghdad to renege on a series of commitments that were made to the Kurds in exchange for backing Mr. Maliki’s return to power in November 2010. Among these is resolving a long-simmering dispute over the constitutional status of historically Kurdish territories. Oil-rich Kirkuk and other territories in Diyala and Mosul provinces are yet to be integrated within Kurdistan’s boundaries, largely because Baghdad is intent on restricting Kurdish autonomy with the help of neighbors like Turkey.

The Kurds were also promised independence to sign oil and gas contracts with foreign investors without those investors being penalized by Baghdad. Kurds argue that Baghdad’s preferred model of doing business with international oil companies is a failed one because it fails to properly compensate these companies for the risks they take in investing in the country.

Kurds point toward the divergence in electricity supplies across different parts of the country: Kurdistan enjoys 24-hour supply almost all the time, while Baghdad and the rest of Arab Iraq spend much of each day cut off from power. The tide further shifted in the Kurds’ favor in November, when Exxon was confirmed to have acquired interests in Kurdistan, despite already having a contract in the South and repeated threats from Baghdad that the company’s operations there would be suspended.

The Kurds needs Baghdad to fulfill these commitments because the national government still controls the national pipeline necessary to export oil efficiently and effectively. It also has a military presence in the disputed areas and controls a national budget, 17% of which is constitutionally guaranteed to the Kurds.

But now the tables are turned. With the Hashimi affair, Kurds have a momentous opportunity and could have everything for the taking. Mr. Hashimi, who hails from the former Baath regime, is hardly a Kurdish ally, and has outspoken ultra-nationalist views toward the country’s Kurdish and Shia population. The task of feeding Mr. Hashimi to Mr. Maliki is made even easier because Mr. Hashimi, a member of the Iraqiyah bloc that won last year’s elections but failed to foster a majority to govern, has little support from within his own bloc.

The incident has created a host of opportunities across the political spectrum, but it also means that the window of opportunity for the Kurds will close precisely when others commit themselves to exploiting the affair. Although the U.S. will oppose any attempt to exploit these divisions, the Kurds may feel that the time is nigh to do the pragmatic thing to help guarantee their long-term political and security interests.

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