Iraq New Dawn: The Challenge of Sectarian Divisions


6/19/12: by Richard Weitz

In addition to these strains between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, three sources of Arab-Kurdish tensions exist despite their shared Iraqi Sunni background: territorial disputes, constitutional disagreements, and diverging foreign policy orientations.

Since 2003, Iraqi Kurds have simultaneously been creating an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq while participating in the Iraqi national government in Baghdad.

This KRG, also known as Iraqi Kurdistan, controls the provinces of Irbil, Dahuk, and Sulamaniyah. Following years of brutal suppression under Baghdad-based rulers, including the use of chemical weapons against them under Saddam, the KRG region has recently enjoyed relative economic prosperity and security from terrorism.

Furthermore, the KRG has pursued its own foreign economic policy, developing independent connections with foreign countries and signing oil deals with foreign companies without Baghdad’s approval.

Nonetheless, the KRG is vulnerable to internal political disputes and tensions with its neighboring regions of Turkey, Iran, and the rest of Iraq.

Baghdad disputes the KRG’s autonomy claims. Popular protests have increased over economic issues ranging from demands for more jobs, electricity, and drinking water. Iraqi Kurds have also complained about the local government’s corruption, repression of the media, and other civil rights abuses it what is arguably still the Iraqi region best primed for an enduring democratic transition.

Another fear is that ethnic conflicts between Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and others could reignite in northern Iraq along with sectarian divides between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in central and southern Iraq.

The Khanaqin district is predominantly Kurdish but it went through a period of Arabization under Saddam. Following Saddam’s removal, most of the Kurds returned to Khanaqin and reoccupied their lands. However, the official documents and ownership rights are still in the hand of Arab landlords. The area also has a sizeable mix of Shiite and Sunni Arabs. This volatile mix is prone to sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

The territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds center on Ninewa, Salah Al-Din, Diyala, and Tameem. Both Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds populate these four territories in northern Iraq.

Beginning in June 2009, a high-level task force led by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has sought to solve the disputed territories and other conflicts. Article 141 of the Iraqi Constitution recognizes the legality of the KRG, the Peshmerga as a legitimate regional security force, and the legislation enacted by the KRG parliament as long as it does not contradict the Iraq constitution.

The Kurdish situation remains dangerous.

The remaining Sunni insurgent groups have been active in the areas contested between Arabs and Kurds. The northern city of Mosul, on the ethnic fault line, was the last AQI stronghold precisely because the group was able to manipulate the area’s ethnic tensions and anti-Kurdish sentiments. The contested area of Kirkuk, a major city in northern Iraq, sits atop extensive oil reserves, further complicating revenue-sharing schemes between local and national government agencies. The city’s Kurds want Kirkuk to become part of the KRG while the Iraqi Arabs and Turkomen resist. Under Saddam, thousands of Arabs from central and southern Iraq were relocated to the city, often displacing Kirkuk’s Kurds.

Iraq’s Kurds want Article 140 of the constitution, which calls for the right of return or compensation for individuals who were expelled from their properties, to be implemented in the KRG. In February 2007, the Iraqi committee responsible for applying Article 140 adopted a controversial plan to entice Arab families to voluntarily leave the disputed city of Kirkuk in exchange for compensation.

But the referendum that was supposed to be held to determine whether Kirkuk formally joins the KRG has never been held.

Kurdish relations with its Turkish neighbor in the north remain in flux. But the new Turkish government has come to terms with the KRG. Credit Image: Bigstock

On April 22, 2009, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq presented a report to the Iraqi government detailing possible solutions to internal border disputes.

One of the four proposed options was to create an autonomous region run by Kurds, Arabs and Turkomens. Under this plan, a percentage of Kirkuk’s oil revenues would finance the region’s budget.

A second option is to make Kirkuk a “special status” province where both Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish regional government would share power. According to this option, a referendum would occur within five years to determine Kirkuk’s final status. But Iraqi authorities have declined to apply the solutions offered by the UN or other entities.

As a confidence-building measure, U.S. troops continued partnered operations there with the Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish militia even after U.S. combat operations officially ended in September 2010, but this buffer also ended when all U.S. soldiers withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Kurdish relations with its Turkish neighbor in the north remain in flux.

Turkey has recently conducted major military operations in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a guerilla war for decades in the Kurdish-inhabited regions of southeastern Turkey. For many years the Turkish government perceived Iraqi Kurdish autonomy as a threat since it inspired PKK demands for greater autonomy or independence.

But the new Turkish government has come to terms with the KRG.

Turkish and KRG security forces now cooperate against the PKK. Turkish firms have become the largest foreign national investor in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The emergence of a new Kurdish terrorist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), is also a concern among Iraqi Kurds. The PJAK is an Iranian Kurdish offshoot of the PKK that has used force to demand that Tehran grant Iranian Kurds more autonomy. Iranian forces have responded to PJAK terrorist attacks by shelling the KRG’s territory.

Perhaps the gravest danger is that these tensions between Arabs and Kurds will cause open conflict within the Iraqi Security Forces, which have been responsible for the entire country’s security since January 2009.

Security issues are already a source of tension between Arabs and Kurds.

The majority of the ISF rank and file is Shiite. The Kurds have their own security forces: the Peshmerga is their main combat force, the Zervani are the local police, the Assayesh are responsible for internal security, and the Parastin/Zenyari provides the main intelligence personnel.

There have been efforts to integrate the Kurdish Peshmerga into ISF training and operations. Prime Minister al-Maliki announced on April 16, 2010 that four unified Peshmerga Regional Guards Brigades (RGBs) had become part of the ISF. This accomplishment has paved the way for more integrated Peshmerga-ISF training and operations.

But the two major political parties of Iraqi Kurds have not disbanded their militias, which function independently of the national government.

Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have been the region’s longstanding political leaders.

In 2004, Barzani and Talabani agreed to form a united front on the federal level, with both men representing Iraqi Kurdish interests together as leaders of the Kurdish contingent on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as well as through the united Kurdish list (known as the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan, or DPAK) in the series of Iraqi elections starting in 2005.

With Talabani having already ascended to the Iraqi Presidency (Iraq’s head of state), Barzani was elected KRG President by the newly elected Kurdish assembly.

Yet, the elections of 2010 have shown that Kurds have grown tired of the KDP/PUK choice, especially now that the parties have sought to collaborate and monopolize political power.

The Gorran, the new political party meaning “change,” had a strong performance.  Gorran’s platform focused on fighting corruption, a major concern among Iraqis. The party also provides an opportunity for a new and younger generation of Kurds looking for new political and work opportunities.

Iraq has long had a large number of Christian Arabs.

The older communities adhered primarily to Orthodox Christianity while the newer ones often adopting Roman Catholicism. Christians were tolerated as minorities for most of modern Iraqi history, but have been persecuted by Muslim extremists since Saddam’s fall in 2003 led to a surge in sectarian tensions. The burning of churches and other threats generated a mass exodus of Iraqi Christians to neighboring countries and beyond.

During the last decade, Iraq’s Christian population has fallen from about 1.4 million in 2003 to fewer than 500,000 in 2012.

The sorry state of Iraq’s Christians resembles that of many other Arab countries, where newly empowered Islamist extremists or groups have often targeted Christians. These groups are seeking to stir up sectarian tensions for political purposes.