Tensions Continue in Northern Iraq

Stephen DeAngelis

July 10, 2009

During the general election in Iraq, things were mostly quiet and in order except in Northern Iraq in the area surrounding Mosul. Tension in the region is caused by three principal factors: crime, the continued insurgency, and mistrust between Kurds and Arabs. For more details about the latter situation, read my post Nastiness in Nineveh. I concluded that post with these words:

 

With the June deadline looming for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities, renewed efforts need to be made to find a solution to growing tensions. Unfortunately, many people in the area believe that only confrontation will result in a solution. Such an outcome would be bad for both sides since it would set back development efforts and drain scarce resources which could be put to better use than fighting a civil war. Nineveh may never achieve the greatness it enjoyed in the past, but men of good will can make it better than it is today.”

 

June has come and gone; but men of good will have yet to emerge. Tensions seem to be increasing rather than diminishing [“Insurgency Remains Tenacious in North Iraq,” by Steven Lee Myers and Campbell Robertson, New York Times, 9 July 2009]. Myers and Robertson report:

 

Now that American troops have largely pulled back from Iraq’s cities, one violent region remains particularly intractable: Nineveh Province and its turbulent capital, Mosul. Even a major military offensive in the months before the withdrawal did not quell the insurgency or reduce the violence. On Thursday, a twin suicide attack by bombers wearing explosive vests punctuated a recent string of attacks, a wave of violence that shows little sign of relenting. … The persistent violence in Mosul and Nineveh underscores the broader turmoil afflicting Iraq. But it also reflects the region’s unique mixture of insurgency and ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs, as well as a proliferation of criminal gangs, that makes the north the most dangerous part of the country.”

 

The article points out that the insurgency was defeated elsewhere in Iraq by gaining the support of the local populace against the insurgents. With tensions remaining high between Kurds and Arabs, cooperation between the groups has been non-existent. As a result, the strategy used elsewhere in Iraq has failed to take hold in Nineveh. The most recent violence, however, wasn’t between Kurds and Arabs. The attacks appeared to be the work of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella insurgency group that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Although the “attack occurred in a Shiite neighborhood in a city largely populated by Turkmen Sunnis, … it appears to have been aimed at Iraq’s security forces.” With the future of both Southern and Northern Iraq hanging in the balance, now would be a good time for Kurds and Arabs to set aside differences and defeat the insurgency. That, however, appears unlikely. As a result, hope is slowly being sapped from the area’s citizens as the constant threat of insurrection hangs over the area like a pall.

 

The attacks in Mosul … are … often small, directed and constant, with a toll that accumulates inexorably even as it draws less attention. For three months, policemen have been killed at the rate of roughly one a day. Lawyers have been singled out and shot, as have university professors, students, government officials, retired soldiers, mothers and daughters, and even the coach of the Iraqi national karate team. In all of Nineveh, 94 Iraqis were killed last month, the vast majority of them in Mosul, Iraqi security officials and employees of Nineveh’s morgue said. July is already on track to be equally deadly, or worse. With its proximity to the Syrian border, a crossing point for foreign fighters, the region has long been one of the most difficult to pacify. Although initially calm after the American invasion, the region became a haven for insurgents pushed out of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq after the large influx of American troops — the so-called surge — began in 2007.”

 

Although most the attacks in Nineveh have been against police and other security officers, tensions on the political stage remain focused on disagreements between Kurds and Arabs. Political changes in the semiautonomous Kurdish region are not helping the situation [“Kurds Defy Baghdad, Laying Claim to Land and Oil,” by Sam Dagher, New York Times, 9 July 2009]. Dagher reports:

 

With little notice and almost no public debate, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are pushing ahead with a new constitution for their semiautonomous region, a step that has alarmed Iraqi and American officials who fear that the move poses a new threat to the country’s unity. The new constitution, approved by Kurdistan’s parliament two weeks ago and scheduled for a referendum this year, underscores the level of mistrust and bad faith between the region and the central government in Baghdad. And it raises the question of whether a peaceful resolution of disputes between the two is possible, despite intensive cajoling by the United States. The proposed constitution enshrines Kurdish claims to territories and the oil and gas beneath them. But these claims are disputed by both the federal government in Baghdad and ethnic groups on the ground, and were supposed to be resolved in talks begun quietly last month between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, sponsored by the United Nations and backed by the United States. Instead, the Kurdish parliament pushed ahead and passed the constitution, partly as a message that it would resist pressure from the American and Iraqi governments to make concessions.”

 

Iraq’s central government and the United States fear that the new constitution is another step toward creating a separate Kurdish state — a move that both governments oppose. For their part, the Kurds remain both mistrustful and frustrated with Iraq’s central government.

 

Kurdish officials defended their efforts to adopt a new constitution that defines the Kurdistan region as comprising their three provinces and also tries to add all of hotly contested and oil-rich Kirkuk Province, as well as other disputed areas in Nineveh and Diyala Provinces. Iraq’s federal Constitution allows the Kurds the right to their own constitution, referring any conflicts to Iraq’s highest court. Susan Shihab, a member of Kurdistan’s parliament, said she no longer had faith that the rights of Kurds under the federal constitution from 2005 would be respected. ‘What is missing the most in the new Iraq is confidence,’ she said. At the same time, though, some Kurds acknowledge that they have grown frustrated with the halting talks to resolve territorial disputes and other issues involving Kurds’ political power in Iraq.”

 

Although U.S. officials understand Kurdish frustration, they find the push for a new constitution “unhelpful.” Not all Kurds favor the new constitution. Dagher concludes:

 

Many people in Kurdistan are deeply troubled by how the constitution was hastily passed and the extraordinary powers it gives the president, without meaningful checks and balances. A group of civil society organizations in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya began a campaign last month opposing the constitution. Namo Sharif, an activist involved in the effort, said a Kurdish government official called him a ‘traitor.’ Kwestan Mohammed, a member of the regional parliament who joined a new coalition running against the two ruling parties in the July elections, said that Kurdistan needed its own constitution but that the document in its current form planted the seeds of endless conflict with the central government and made the region’s president an ‘absolute’ ruler.”

 

Although rationale individuals would admit that the best way forward would be peaceful negotiation of differences, history has so colored the relationship between Kurds and Arabs that emotions, not logic, are the governing force in the region. For the time being, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central Iraqi government need to isolate the more peaceful areas of the country from the more unstable ones. They can’t permit tensions in the north to disrupt economic progress being made elsewhere in the country. Since the Kurds and the Arabs are unlikely to work out a solution on their own, the international community needs to remain a primary player in ongoing negotiations.