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Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears

Iraq’s new coalition government and the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil must start talks on disputed internal boundaries or risk an outbreak of violent conflict along a “trigger” line dividing army troops and Kurdish regional guard forces, the peshmergas.

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Executive Summary

Iraq’s government was long in the making, but its inclusive nature and the way in which it was formed offer hope that it can make progress in the struggle between Arabs and Kurds. The conflict, which has left a devastating imprint on the country’s twentieth-century history, could cause political paralysis or, worse, precipitate Iraq’s break-up. Coalition partners have a unique opportunity to make headway. Failure to seize it would be inexcusable. Both sides should build on the apparent goodwill generated by efforts to establish a government to lay the foundations for a negotiated and peaceful settlement. In particular, they should immediately resume talks over the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. They also should use their January 2011 agreement to export Kurdish oil through the national pipeline as a basis for negotiations over a revenue-sharing law and a comprehensive hydrocarbons law.

As protests throughout the country have shown, Iraq is not immune from the revolutionary fervour that is coursing through the Middle East and North Africa. Nor should it be, as successive governments’ inability to provide essential services, most importantly a steady supply of electrical power, has given rise to legitimate grievances. In what will be an early test for the new government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have to find an effective response to protesters’ demands as a top priority, certainly before the arrival of the hot summer months. The same holds true for the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), which has long been buffeted by complaints concerning poor service delivery and widespread corruption. Protests in Suleimaniya in February and March 2011 show it is overdue in taking persuasive remedial action and thus faces the risk of escalating and spreading unrest.

Arab-Kurdish relations remain a tinderbox. In late February, the Kurdistan regional government sent military forces into Kirkuk in a transparent attempt to both deflect attention from events in Suleimaniya and rally the Kurdish population around the supremely emotive issue of Kir­kuk’s status. In doing so, it dangerously inflamed an already tense situation and exacerbated ethnic tensions. This should serve as a reminder of the need for leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to urgently attend to the structural Arab-Kurd fault line.

In joining the coalition government, Kurdish leaders presented conditions on power-sharing and outstanding claims over resources and territory. Maliki says he agreed to most, but to the Kurds the ultimate proof lies in whether and how he fulfils them. It is doubtful that the prime minister can or even would want to satisfy their every demand, and both sides will need to show flexibility in hammering out the required deals – notably on completing government formation, hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing legislation and the delineation of the Kurdistan region’s internal boundaries.

In the past, Crisis Group has argued that Kirkuk should gain special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period, with a mechanism for ultimately resolving its status, and with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly. A deal along these lines appears within reach, and now is the time to pursue it. In January, building on their success in forming the coalition government, Baghdad and Erbil negotiated a tactical agreement on oil exports from the Kurdistan region whose implementation should prove beneficial to both. They ought to take this a step further by starting talks on the range of issues that have plagued their post-2003 relationship.

In June 2009, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) set up a high-level task force whose stated goal was to work toward a negotiated solution – initially through confidence-building mechanisms – for the disputed territories, the broad swathe of land from the Syrian to the Iranian border that Kurds claim as historically part of Kurdistan. UNAMI realised full well, however, that the task force was unlikely to make progress in the months leading up to and following legislative elections, so its real objective was to keep the parties at the table until a new government was formed. This period, which lasted a year and a half, has now come to an end; today, the initiative should be invested with new life.

At the core of the territorial dispute lies the disposition of Kirkuk, the name for three separate but overlapping entities – city, governorate and super-giant oil field – that are subject to competing claims. The 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, but it has run aground on profound differences over interpretation and lack of political will. Meanwhile, the situation in the disputed territories has been left to fester. In areas with a rich ethnic mix, such as Kirkuk city and several districts of Ninewa governorate, this has produced strong tensions and politically-motivated provocations aimed at sparking inter-communal conflict.

To prevent small incidents from escalating into a broader conflagration, the U.S. military in 2009 established so-called combined security mechanisms along the trigger line – the line of control between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional guard force, known as the peshmergas, that runs along the disputed region’s spine. The mechanisms’ key features are joint checkpoints and patrols involving army and guard force personnel with embedded U.S. officers, as well as coordination centres designed to improve communication and build trust between the two sides. Moreover, Baghdad and Erbil agreed to a set of rules governing the deployment of their respective security forces in these areas.

Together, these steps have reduced tensions, but the security forces’ presence and posture in their designated sectors remind a weary population the conflict is far from resolved. The standoff between the army and the peshmergas in Kirkuk’s environs, in particular, and provocative conduct of the Kurdish security police, the asaesh, inside the city augur trouble for the period after U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011. Events in late February-early March, when peshmerga forces deployed around Kirkuk city over the vehement protestations of local Arab and Turkoman leaders, were another warning that the security situation, relatively stable since 2003, may not hold.

The combined security mechanisms were intended to buy time for negotiations over the disputed territories’ status. So far, measures fashioned to break the deadlock, such as a process to organise provincial elections in Kirkuk, have reinforced it, increasing frustration and mutual recrimination. The impact has not been limited to the immediate area: a nationwide census has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements over its application in the disputed territories. Without progress, conflict threatens to erupt as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, including positions along the trigger line. This causes anxiety all around, especially among Kirkuk residents, who appear unanimous in calling for continued U.S. military protection.

There are no easy fixes. Although Maliki’s government might seek to negotiate a troop extension, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. troop presence in the north will be severely curtailed if not ended within a few months. UNAMI has begun to explore Baghdad’s and Erbil’s readiness to re-engage on core issues, but delays in filling key government posts, such as the defence and interior ministers, militate against an early resumption of talks.

The U.S. takes the position that its forces are leaving, so Iraqis will have to sort out problems along the trigger line without the psychological security blanket its military presence has provided. It also appears to believe the impending departure itself might concentrate Iraqi minds and produce political will to agree on the disposition of Kirkuk and other territories. That could be a logical wager, but it also is a risky one. At a minimum, the U.S. should provide strong diplomatic and financial support to UNAMI as it prepares for talks, including by making continued military aid conditional on stakeholders’ constructive participation in negotiations and commitment to refrain from unilateral military moves. UNAMI should propose specific confidence-building steps in the disputed territories based on its impressive (unpublished) April 2009 report. In so doing, it should make every effort to involve political representatives from the disputed territories. Both the Maliki and Kurdistan regional governments should encourage economic activity in the territories and, in Kirkuk, impartial use of extra revenue from oil sales on projects benefiting the entire community.

Most of all, leaders in Baghdad and Erbil need to ask themselves: will they be persuaded to pursue a negotiated solution by the realisation they cannot attain their objectives either by letting the matter linger or by using force? Or will they be prompted only by the outbreak of a violent conflict neither side wants and whose outcome they could not control?

Erbil/Baghdad/Brussels, 28 March 2011


Mutanabbi Street on a Friday afternoon. 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Picturing Baghdad

Despite their traumatic history, Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to their country’s political failures. Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy visited Baghdad in October-November 2018 and returned with portraits of its people’s search for normalcy.

Iraq has endured decades of sanctions, war, invasion, regime change and dysfunctional government. These span Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and crippling UN sanctions throughout the 1990s. Those difficult years gave way to the traumas of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath, which brought the insurgents of the Islamic State to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 2014.

While governments form and collapse behind the blast walls of Baghdad’s Green Zone, life in the rest of the city has grown resilient to the disruptions of politics. Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to collective problems that politicians and state are failing to address.

Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy joined our Senior Iraq Adviser Maria Fantappie in the city in October and November 2018. Her images portray a people whose public spaces – main streets, coffee houses and marketplaces – bear the scars of all its upheavals. But they also communicate Iraqis’ ambition to overcome them and capture moments in their search for normalcy against enormous odds.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

It’s late October 2018, and the new prime minister is forming his government. He is promising meaningful reform to a dysfunctional political system. This change is hard to imagine, since political actors and rules of the game remain largely the same. The next ruling coalition is likely to be a “government of enemies”, one of our interlocutors tells us. But the streets of Baghdad feel distant and indifferent to the details of the struggle for power within Iraq’s narrow political elite.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet, is the heart of Baghdad’s book trade. Even at peaks of violence and political crisis, Fridays here have remained a melting pot for Iraqis of all backgrounds. Enjoying calmer hours on this Muslim day of prayer and rest, booksellers in the pedestrian zone mix with vendors of tea, songbirds, street food and antiques.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a bird in Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street. The buyer then frees the bird, believing this will avert the evil eye of bad fortune and bring good luck to the bird’s liberator.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraqis born after 2000 have grown up in a city divided by checkpoints and the invisible walls erected by sectarian conflict. From northern Iraqi Kurdistan to southern Basra, whatever their sect or ethnicity, young people share similar grievances and seek rights as citizens. But political participation among young Iraqis is still overshadowed by a legacy of division and parochial politics.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Shahbander Coffeehouse in Mutanabbi Street reflects Iraq’s resilience. Open since 1917, the coffeehouse outlasted a deadly bombing in 2007 and has preserved many architectural features of old Baghdad. Despite the city’s volatility, its owners take pride in hosting several generations of established and aspiring intellectuals.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

An image of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most contentious figures in post-2003 politics, hangs on a Baghdad street corner. The Shiite cleric moves in and out of Green Zone politics. He led calls for the formation of a militia that fought against the U.S. occupation in 2004-2008. His Sa’iroun electoral list won 54 seats in the May 2018 elections, the largest number of seats of any party. The Sadrist movement has proved canny at capitalising on the changing moods of the Iraqi street.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A Friday morning walk in Mutanabbi Street.

1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Inside the walls of the Green Zone where senior politicians operate, the formation of the latest government continues. On 2 October, Adel Abdul Mahdi was tasked with forming a cabinet. On 24 October, several technocrats were sworn in as new ministers and charged with important reforms. Yet the survival of this government, as with those that preceded it, still hinges on maintaining a balance of power between ethnic and religious groups and fragile coexistence between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Though widely underrepresented in government, women are a leading force in civil society. Initiatives here are trying to shape new policy agenda focused on society’s needs rather than the self-serving interests of politicians. But civic-minded activists and politicians remain disconnected, blocking the way for new figures and new ideas to be channelled into decision-making.

4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Baghdad’s millennials are the beating heart of citizen-led initiatives. Civil society has grown more vibrant as politicians fail to resolve the challenges affecting people’s daily lives, whether ending the economic crisis or preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Civil society groups are prioritising issues often neglected by politicians, including family law, ecology, urbanisation and archaeological conservation.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When we ask ordinary Iraqis about what they expect from the new government during informal conversations, their answers frequently highlight their continuing distrust of politics and politicians. People want reforms that have a direct, positive impact on their everyday lives.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 has reduced violence, but Iraqis still have to cope with an economic crisis aggravated by the fall of oil prices. Iraq remains completely dependent on oil revenues, which feed a bloated public sector. The private sector, far from rewarding independent business owners, remains an extension of the politicians’ patronage network.

2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A family prepares for an evening outing on the Tigris. In the summer of 2018, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply almost all of the country’s drinking and agricultural water, fell to the lowest levels in living memory. Water shortages provoked a series of riots in Basra during the summer heat in mid-2018. Iraqi officials blame Turkey and Iran for drawing off too much water from both rivers and their tributaries but still do not consider water management a policy priority.

31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The sun sets over the Tigris River running through Baghdad.