Tensions between the Arab and Kurdish communities in the North and West of Iraq are the main destabilizing factor in the country, warns a senior American military official in Bagdad, General Steve Lanza. After the terrorist threat presented by Al Qaida in 2006-2007 and the inter-Shiite conflict in 2008, current tensions could represent the beginning of a "third phase" of crisis.
Tensions arose because of the American decision in 2003 which authorized their Kurdish allies to occupy 80 000 km2 of territory bordering the three Northern provinces that they were governing. "80 000 km2, is three times the surface of their three provinces ", highlighted an Iraqi Official in an Arabic newspaper. It is thus hardly surprising that their Arabic neighbors are protesting today. At that time, the Kurds were allied with the Shiites- the main allies of the Americans. It is they who, with the American proconsul Paul Bremer, drafted the federal constitution which has caused Iraq so many difficulties.
How to return the Kurdish Peshmerga to their three Northern provinces? Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has endorsed various ventures in the last months in order to find an answer to the question. He tests his Kurdish neighbors by sending up an Iraqi army brigade here or there, but faces Peshmergas who refuse to give a single square meter of land. The Americans have proposed cooperation between US forces and Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and joint patrols, but it was in vain.
The situation on the ground is getting worse. There are areas of tensions between Arabs and Kurds, which undoubtedly strengthens the position of Al Qaeda which has been more or less expelled from other areas in Iraq. A new theater of potential ethnic violence which Al Qaeda will inevitably try to capitalize on.
Taking advantage of American patronage, the Kurds went a long way to establish their autonomy in 2003. Perhaps too far? They probably knew that, faced with a choice between Bagdad and Erbil, the Americans will probably ultimately choose Iraq. That may be why they started to redefine their relations with their neighbors, particularly Turkey, especially on the PKK subject.
In Bagdad, Nouri al-Maliki has bad relations with the president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani. He'll probably need the Kurds however if he wants to hold on to power and the Prime Minister's post after the general election in January 2010. Thus, in the eyes of the Kurds, Maliki's room to maneuver is considerably reduced, unless of course he manages to find other coalition partners (such as Iyad Alawi or Salih al-Mutlaq), win a majority and thus continue to rule.
"We're working very hard to calm the tensions in the North ", says General Lanza. A committee has been formed with senior American military officials, representatives of the KRG and officials from the central government in Bagdad to discuss initiatives and potential solutions. But as times passes, the rift between Arabs and Kurds in the North is growing.