ANALYSIS Kurdistan conflict threatens to bring new violence to Iraq

Christophe Ayad –  Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 14 August (Le Monde)           

Just how far will the dispute between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan go? Clashes between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, have been escalating since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011, leading to speculation about the declaration of an independent Kurdish state. Certainly the hypothesis of an armed conflict between the central Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish region cannot be excluded.

One recent example of current tensions occurred last month when the Kurdish peshmerga prevented the Iraqi national army from reaching the Fishkhabur crossing into Syria in the Zimar region, one of the “disputed territories”. According to AFP, an anonymous Iraqi source has accused the Kurdish authorities of illegally buying anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons “with help from a foreign country”. Fingers point to Turkey, which supports Iraqi Kurdistan and is in conflict with Baghdad. Last spring Barzani tried in vain to dissuade the US from selling F16 fighter planes to Iraq.

This tension has been exacerbated by the war in Syria. Barzani supports the rebels whereas Maliki, who is pro-Iran supports Bashar al-Assad. Profiting from this situation, the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida has resurfaced and on 23 July claimed responsibility for a series of attacks that killed 116 people.

Baghdad and Erbil have an endless list of grievances, ranging from border controls and the integration of the peshmerga to the Iraqi national army, to the delimitation of Kurdistan and the sharing of wealth between the centre and the autonomous region – especially oil.

There is a fear that growing Kurdish independence will serve as an example to the Sunni provinces, or even to the oil-rich Shia province of Basra in the far south of Iraq, which produces 2m of the 2.5m Iraqi barrels a day. “Al-Maliki would far rather be the leader of a large country than the master of a ‘Shia-istan’ in the south of Iraq,” was one western diplomat’s analysis. Conversely, Barzani sees himself as the defender of Iraqi minorities in the face of Shia “hegemony”. That is why he granted asylum to the Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi in December 2011, after he was judged in abstentia in Iraq for having headed a death squad during the civil war (2005-2008).

The Kurdish-Sunni rapprochement, promoted by Turkey, has led to a coalition that is seeking to overthrow Maliki – so far without success. In retaliation, the Iraqi prime minister denounced his opponent’s corruption and nepotism on a private Kurdish television station last June, pointing out that Barzani’s son heads the autonomous region’s security services while his nephew is prime minister.

At the core of this friction lies the issue of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. According to one diplomat, Barzani’s dilemma is as follows: “He knows that Kurdistan is not ready and that other countries in the region would not appreciate a declaration of independence. But he is also aware that the longer he waits, the stronger Baghdad will become.”

This article originally appeared in Le Monde