- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

During Saddam Hussein’s blood-soaked rule, he ordered the ethnic cleansing of Kurds, the Arabization of their lands and their forcible removal from Kirkuk, the northern Iraqi city at the center of 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves.

The Kurds, 20 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people, thus lost control of a city they claim is theirs. They now want it back as the capital of their semiautonomous Kurdish region. But both Sunni and Shi’ite Iraqis are opposed, and the stalemate could provide the spark for a much-feared civil war.

Brits, with long colonial experience in Iraq, say Kirkuk, not the insurgency, is the tipping point between success and failure for the U.S. attempt to introduce democratic rule.

A coalition of Shi’ite Iraqis and another alliance of the two main groups of Kurds, who are not Arabs, between them garnered 215 seats in the 275-member national assembly. The Sunnis, for the most part boycotted the national elections Jan. 30.

The Shi’ites have 140 seats, just shy of a majority. But they can count on support from small splinter factions to block the Kurds from seizing both Kirkuk and the surrounding oil wealth. But Kurds already control the Kirkuk city council with 59 percent of the vote. They are determined to right the wrongs of the Saddam regime — by force if necessary. The Kurdish militia — the 80,000-strong peshmerga, which means “those who face death” — are the best troops in Iraq outside coalition forces. They were also the only Iraqis to fight alongside U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They have done well against insurgents in the three mainly Kurdish northern provinces in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tal Afar.

Under an agreement last June, peshmerga were to disband and be absorbed into Iraq’s army, security and police forces. Some now wear Iraqi uniforms but still consider themselves an autonomous Kurdish force. The authoritative London-based “Jane’s Foreign Report (March 17) said, “For some time now, largely unnoticed by the outside world, there have been repeated clashes between the Kurds and their rivals in Kirkuk and other northern towns.”

The International Crisis Group in Brussels said: “Tensions in the Kirkuk region, where the political ambitions, historical claims and economic interests of the principal communities — Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen and Chaldo-Assyrians — clash, have been escalating since U.S. forces toppled the Ba’athist regime in 2003. Violence is assuming a troubled pattern.”

The ingredients for a civil war are in place. Such a conflict could rapidly escalate regionally, dragging in Turkey, Iran and Syria: Turkey, because it fears an independent Kurdish state would become a magnet for Turkish Kurds; Syria, because it also has a Turkish minority and would welcome an opportunity to sabotage America’s democratic experiment; Iran, because it wants Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government to prevail. The Kurds cannot recover confiscated lands without dispossessing the Arabs who replaced them in the 1970s and ‘80s.

But the Kurds also hold a trump card short of hostilities. The Transitional Administrative Law, written in 2004 by the Interim Governing Council under U.S. guidance, says a permanent constitution can be vetoed if three of the 18 provinces fail to ratify. Kurds control three provinces in the north.

Jalal Talabani, one of two principal Kurdish leaders, was to become president of the new Iraq, a largely ceremonial post, and Shi’ite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari the new prime minister. Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite with 40 seats in the national assembly, who is still prime minister may still be the compromise candidate to see Iraq through the rest of the year.

Whatever happens, the Kurds, who have known nothing but betrayal by the powers in the 20th century, are not about to give ground on Kirkuk and its oil revenues. Mr. Talabani calls the city “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” Massoud Barzani, the other principal Kurdish leader, says, “We are ready to fight and sacrifice our soul to preserve [Kirkuk’s] identity.”

A unitary democratic Iraq is the U.S. goal. If the Kurds have their way, Shi’ites in the south would find salvation with 60 percent of Iraq’s oil and a closer relationship with Iran. The Sunnis, high and dry in the center of the country, would take the insurgency to new heights of violence. The failure of negotiations would spell disaster.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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