Louis Khno is a city councilman whose city is beyond his control. In his barricaded streets are militiamen — in baseball caps and jeans, wielding Kalashnikov rifles, with the safeties switched off. They answer to someone else. Leaders of his police force give their loyalty to their ethnic brethren — be they Kurd or Arab. Clergy in the town pledge themselves to the former. Khno and his colleagues to the latter.
“We’re far from the conflict, but now we’ve become the heart of the conflict between Kurds and Arabs,” Khno said. “We’re now stuck in between them.”
Khno called the town “the line of engagement,” one stop along an amorphous frontier in northern Iraq shaped by contested history, geography and authority. Dividing the Kurdish autonomous region from the rest of the country, that frontier represents the most combustible fault line in Iraq today, where Arab and Kurd forces may have come to blows last month along hills of harvested wheat. Kurdish officials suggest that another confrontation is inevitable, with halfhearted negotiations already stalled, and U.S. officials acknowledge that only their intervention has prevented bloodshed.
Since 2003, when U.S. forces barreled into Baghdad, toppling Saddam Hussein, inspiring a Shiite revival and unleashing a Sunni insurgency that drew on a communal sense of siege, the war in Iraq has been in large part a sectarian conflict that pitted Sunni Arab against Shiite Arab. That war has subsided, even if bitterness remains.
For months, there were fears that the sectarian battle might reignite, as the United States withdrew its combat forces. Today, that looks less likely. Rather, U.S. officials say, the biggest threat to Iraq in the years ahead is the ethnic conflict, Kurds in the north against the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad, a still-unresolved struggle that has helped shape Iraq’s history since the British inherited the land after World War I. [continued…]
When Iraqis were drafting their Constitution in 2005, the parties could not agree on who would control Kirkuk, the prized oil capital of the north. They couldn’t even agree on who lived in Kirkuk, which is claimed by the region’s Kurds, but also by its Turkmen minority and Sunni Arabs. For that matter, they couldn’t even agree on where Kirkuk was — in Tamim, Erbil, or Sulaimaniya Province.
So the Iraqis punted, inserting Article 140, a clause that called for a national census, followed by a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, all to be held by the end of 2007. What followed were a succession of delays, against a backdrop of sectarian violence and warnings that Kirkuk could blow apart the Shiite-Kurdish alliance that has governed Iraq since the Americans invaded.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, warned two years ago that if “Article 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war.” He’s still waiting.
But so is the threat of civil war, which lurked quietly in the polling places this weekend as residents of Iraq’s Kurdish-dominated areas voted for their regional president and Parliament. Until the status of Kirkuk is clear, nobody really knows how much power those regional officials can wield within the national government, or even whether the Kurds will want to remain part of Iraq. [continued…]