Opinion: Hawija and the Kurds

By Wladimir van Wilgenburg – 6.5.2013 – It is Iraq’s autonomous Kurds who are benefiting most from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s latest misstep, this time in the northern province of Kirkuk against the country’s large Sunni Muslim minority.

After months of protests in the Sunni provinces, dozens of protesters were killed when Maliki ordered a military crackdown on demonstrations in Hawija, a Sunni Arab town in Kirkuk. Iraqi army soldiers stormed the sit-in, after protestors refused to hand over insurgent suspects. The violence quickly spread to other Sunni areas of Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been locked in a serious dispute with Baghdad over disputed territories that include oil-rich Kirkuk, has sided with the protesters.

Iraq’s Sunnis have always been torn over where their loyalties lie: With the Shiites, they share a common Arab ethnicity; with the ethnically distinct Kurds, who have their own language and culture, they share the same Sunni sect.

But the bloodshed against protesters by Maliki’s controversial Dijla forces may turn into a game changer over who gets to control Kirkuk, the big prize in Iraq because of its vast oil wealth. By some estimates, Kirkuk floats atop four percent of world reserves. The KRG insists that Kirkuk is predominantly and historically Kurdish. According to Western analysts and intelligence reports, Kirkuk will either one day be the prize in an independent Kurdish homeland, or the bargaining chip that the Kurds will have to forego to Baghdad in order to gain nationhood. After the attack on protesters, the KRG opened its own hospitals to receive the wounded. At a conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil Ahmed Dabbash — a member of the Sunni Islamic Army politburo — denounced Maliki.

The present situation in Hawija, where Sunni insurgents are cooperating with the Kurdish Peshmarga forces, is in sharp contrast to the past: Hawija was the main source of insurgent attacks against the Kurds, at the time when the Sunnis had promised their loyalties to Maliki’s government.

The Sunnis, and Baathist remnants of Iraq’s ousted regime, do not in general fancy the Kurds. But their mutual hatred of Maliki has made the rivals into allies.

Taking advantage of a weakening of the Iraqi army in the disputed areas, the Kurdish Peshmarga forces recently moved in around Kirkuk, Salahadin and Diyala, where the Kurds could regain control over territories lost to the Iraqi army. Having lost Sunni support could mean that Maliki may have to compromise in Baghdad’s various feuds with the Kurds, which include territorial disputes, control of the Kurdistan Region’s oil revenues and reserves, and the budget allocation that the KRG receives from Baghdad. Hawija is a crisis for Maliki and his Shiite-led government. For the Kurds, it is an opportunity: It could help the Kurds expand security and administrative control in more of the disputed areas, consolidating the position of an autonomous enclave that already has its own government, parliament, military and laws.