Monday, January 19, 2009

Rising Tensions between Kurds and the Baghdad government

Reuters reports that an angry Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, has criticized Iraq prime minister al-Maliki for his continuing efforts to establish tribal support councils in the Kurdish provinces, and will consider as traitors any tribal leaders who join them.

This is no minor squabble. Since the creation of the modern country of Iraq, the Kurds have resisted control by the central government in Baghdad, which historically has treated them poorly, resorting to sending in troops and, under Saddam, ethnic cleansing that some would classify (IMO, justifiably) as genocide. Maliki has made huge strides in recent months in strengthening his hand, much aided by the fact that the Iraqi military and police forces have been steadily growing larger and better trained and that he seems ready to wield them as he sees fit. (Witness the very scary confrontation between central-government troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces at Khanaqin a few months ago.)

Another point to be noted here is that despite all the neocon jubilation (see William Kristol's column in yesterday's NYT - and for that matter, the not-so-neocon Peter Beinart in the WaPo) that the "Surge worked" and "we won" in Iraq, Iraq is by no means "fixed." The tribal supporting councils are but one of a number of possible flash-points that reflect ongoing, unresolved tensions that are truly not significantly closer to being resolved than they were a few years ago.

Iraq Kurd leader condemns councils backed by Maliki

Mon Jan 19, 2009 10:29am EST
By Shamal Aqrawi

ARBIL, Iraq, Jan 19 (Reuters) - The head of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region spoke out on Monday against tribal councils backed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a sign of worsening tensions between the Kurds and the central government.

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani threatened to treat any tribal leaders who join such councils in the three Iraqi Kurdish provinces as "traitors", and warned that Arabs joining such councils in other neighbouring provinces could trigger war.

Maliki, a Shi'ite Arab who has presided over a recent sharp drop in violence, has made high profile bids to set up tribal "support councils" throughout Iraq, which his political rivals say undermine the elected institutions of the state.

"Talk about establishing supporting councils in Kurdistan is forbidden and we consider it as treason against us," Barzani told Arab tribal leaders from neighbouring Nineveh province attending a conference in the Kurdish capital Arbil.

"We have a free parliament and a government of institutions in Kurdistan, and we will never permit anyone to interfere in our region to create a conflict," he said.

"As for Arabs, if they contribute in forming supporting councils in adjacent areas to the Kurdistan region, so they will help to trigger a conflict."

Maliki says the tribal councils are a way of winning the support of local leaders and increasing the strength of the state as it recovers from years of insurgency and sectarian bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

But his critics say ousted dictator Saddam Hussein used similar structures to place the country under his personal rule.

Relations between Barzani's Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad have become increasingly fraught in recent months, with unresolved disputes over oil and territory leading to increasingly bitter rhetoric.

Tensions between Arabs and Kurds have also threatened to ignite violence in disputed areas along the "green line" that separates Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, especially ahead of provincial elections at the end of this month.

In Nineveh, Iraq's most violent province, a boycott by Arabs during the last election put Kurds in control of the provincial government despite making up just a quarter of the population. They are expected to see their grip loosened by the election. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; writing by Peter Graff; editing by Michael Christie)

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