Iraq Leader Says Kurds Aiding Sunni Extremists

By Maria Abi-Habib & Joe Parkinson / Wall Street Journal – 10-7-2014 – BAGHDAD—Iraq’s leader accused the country’s Kurds of letting radical Islamist militants use their regional capital of Erbil as an operations center, an allegation Kurdish officials dismissed, as evidence of another sectarian massacre emerged.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s allegation came after the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which is pressing for independence, capitalized on a Sunni extremist assault by seizing territory for themselves, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Then last week, Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani asked the region’s parliament to hold a referendum on independence.

The moves have sparked an outcry from Baghdad, as well as Washington, which both fear the country will be partitioned along both sectarian lines—by the Sunni Arab extremists—and along ethnic lines by the Kurds.

The extremist group, which calls itself the Islamic State, and formerly as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, has garnered the support from some Sunni tribal leaders as well as members of the Baath Party—the ruling party under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni dictatorship.

“Frankly, we can’t accept that Erbil becomes an operations center for the Islamic State, Baathists, al Qaeda and terrorists,” Mr. Maliki said during a national address on Wednesday, without providing evidence to support his allegation. “We can’t consent to any moves that seek to benefit from the [current] situation,” he added, referring to Mr. Barzani’s calls for independence.

In Erbil, senior Kurdish officials rejected Mr. Maliki’s allegation. They urged Mr. Maliki to focus on reclaiming territory captured by Islamic State rather than scapegoating Kurds and point out that Kurdish pesherga forces have fought Islamic State in recent weeks, a scenario they say undermines Mr. Maliki’s claim.

“Is it not better for the prime minister to liberate the captured provinces rather than alleging we are plotting against Baghdad?” the foreign minister for the Kurdish Regional Government, Fallah Mustafa, said in an interview. “We can’t consider all the Sunnis as terrorists. We have lived under the tyranny of the Baathists he is accusing us of harboring.”

The barbed exchange underscores the depths to which Baghdad’s relationship with Erbil has deteriorated during the insurgency. Long at loggerheads over the distribution of oil revenue and the degree of Kurdish autonomy, Mr. Maliki has in recent weeks accused Kurdish President Barzani of exploiting the security crisis to push for statehood.

Many Sunnis who fled the mostly Sunni northern city of Mosul during the militants’ offensive have ended up in Erbil. A number of Sunni sheiks and political heavyweights have converged on Erbil, holding court in its grand hotel lobbies, as they discuss how to replace Mr. Maliki’s government with one they hope would be more inclusive. But these people, the Kurdish officials say, are far from Islamist militants.

The U.S. has repeatedly voiced it opposition to Kurdish independence. The White House said Vice President Joe Biden spoke on Wednesday to Mr. Barzani, who agreed on the need to accelerate the process of forming a central government in Baghdad.

But Sunni political leaders are increasingly supporting Kurdish calls for partition and say the current uprising is in response to the policies of the Shiite-dominated government of Mr. Maliki, which they say marginalizes Iraq’s Sunni minority.

“Partition will happen. The violence and the current situation gave the Kurds an excuse to call for independence and it has increased the tension between Sunnis and Shiites,” said Salim al-Jabouri, a lawmaker from Diyala province who is expected to be the next parliament speaker.Meanwhile, in a reminder of the heightened sectarian violence during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the bodies of 50 men were found south of Baghdad on Wednesday, security officials said. The men blindfolded with hands tied behind their backs and shot at close range in the head, the officials said.The bodies were dumped in near the predominantly Shiite-town of al Nile, an hour’s drive south of Baghdad in Babil province.

“It may be a revenge attack from al Qaeda” or the Islamic State, said a resident of al Nile. The resident said the bodies appeared to be recruits of either Shiite-led militias aiding Iraq’s army against the uprising or the Iraqi soldiers, who Sunnis have accused of discriminating against them. The Islamic State has boasted of the mass killing of Shiites in recent weeks. Mr. Maliki has dismissed such sectarian accusations in the past and praised the military. On Wednesday, his government didn’t comment on the massacre.

—Ali A. Nabhan and Safa Majeed