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 Handover of Iraq's Kirkuk Airport sparks tensions

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Handover of Iraq's Kirkuk Airport sparks tensions  18.11.2011  
By Sam Dagher - WSJ

Standoff at U.S. Airbase in Iraq's Kirkuk

November 18, 2011

KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region, — A tense standoff between local police and the Iraqi Army played out on Thursday at the gate of the U.S. airbase in the northern city of Kirkuk, where a dispute over land and oil threatens national stability and unity as U.S. forces withdraw.

The territorial conflict, between the central government in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, is just one flashpoint that some American and Iraqi officials say could boil over after the full pullout of U.S. troops at the end of December.

Fears of a clash between Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces were heightened on Thursday, when the Kurdish-dominated police in Kirkuk blocked senior Iraqi Army commanders from entering the airbase, where they said they were planning to take over the facility from         

Kirkuk Air base NMC Iraqi Jet at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base. Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state. Photo:
the U.S. military.

The army officials brought reporters from Iraqi state-owned television to document the handover, in what appeared to be an effort to show the nation that Baghdad was in charge. The central government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is increasingly eager to project its power ahead of the U.S. pullout.

The installation, known as Forward Operating Base Warrior, is among nine bases still under U.S. control that are scheduled for transfer to Iraq by the end of December.

The Kurds in the north are sensitive about even allowing the army within the city limits, let alone giving them claim to a military base in the city—one of nearly a dozen disputed patches of oil-rich territory along a 300-mile arc just beyond Iraq's Kurdistan region.

"We did not want a situation where we ended up shooting at each other," said Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim.

Mr. Karim met with Mr. Maliki and U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey in Baghdad in an effort to calm the drama that was unfolding 180 miles to the north.

Mr. Karim, an American neurosurgeon of Kurdish origin, said the standoff was resolved when Mr. Maliki committed to converting the military airbase into a civilian airport in the future, reflecting the wishes of the majority of the members of the provincial council.

The U.S. Embassy and Mr. Maliki's office didn't respond to requests for comment.

After the verbal agreement in Baghdad, the police in Kirkuk allowed a dozen Iraqi army vehicles to enter the base, according to Mr. Karim.

But what happened next highlighted the level of mistrust that remains despite U.S. efforts over the years to tamp down tensions and nudge the two sides to resolve their differences.

Hussein al-Assadi, a special adviser to Mr. Maliki responsible for the formalities of receiving all bases from the U.S. military, proceeded to hold a handover ceremony in a section of the Kirkuk airbase—though no U.S. commanders were present, and all U.S.-Iraqi base handovers have been kept under wraps in recent months for security reasons.

Mr. Assadi said he was transferring security responsibility of the base to the commander of Iraqi ground troops, Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan, in the presence of dozens of other Iraqi officers. "This is a joyous occasion for Kirkuk and Iraq," said Mr. Assadi.

Gen. Ghaidan suggested the decision to turn the airbase into a civilian airport hadn't been finalized, given its strategic importance to the air force.

The ceremony topped the news bulletin on the state-owned Iraqiya TV station.

Later, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, told The Wall Street Journal that the base remained under American control and that as far as the U.S. was concerned no transfer had occurred.

Gen. Buchanan said a transfer would happen in "the very near future" and that while he was concerned about the jostling for control of the airbase, his bigger worry was the unresolved conflict between the central government and the Kurdistan region.

"My bigger concern longer-term is the need to continue the political dialogue that can solve the underlying problems that still have not been resolved," he said.

The potential for a clash between Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces has been a main source of concern for many U.S. military officials in the aftermath of President Barack Obama's announcement last month that the U.S. would withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

In testimony before Congress, the nation's second-ranking uniformed officer said this week that a chief worry once the U.S. pullout is complete is the tension between the two sides, especially in northern Iraq.

Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the potential conflict in the Iraqi north "will become a destabilizing flash point."

Gen. Dempsey responded: "I worry about a lot of things, senator, and I will include this among the list of things I worry about."

In Kirkuk, Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen—diverse ethnic groups belonging to Iraq's majority Muslim faith—have been immersed in a fight, at times bloody, for control of the oil-rich province.

The struggle also pits the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad against the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, which claims authority in Kirkuk and other territories.

While the epicenter of this struggle is Kirkuk, it extends east to the Iranian border and northwest to the Syrian frontier.

At the end of 2009, the U.S. military oversaw the creation of a joint security mechanism between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi Army to conduct patrols and man checkpoints in the disputed territories in order to foster trust and give political leaders on both sides the opportunity to resolve the conflict. Until recently, U.S. soldiers were directly involved in this security effort.

Diplomats as well as representatives from the U.S. Office for Security Cooperation will remain involved in a regional coordination center after the U.S. troops are gone, according to Gen. Buchanan.

But many, including Kirkuk's governor, fear this security mechanism could unravel after U.S. troops depart.

"They are together while the U.S. forces are here and they will be together if nothing happens," said Mr. Karim. "But God forbid if the situation changes you will probably see them split apart, going their own way."

Although the State Department is expected to remain deeply engaged with these issues, many officials in places such as Kirkuk fear it won't have the same authority or ability as the military to control the potentially explosive situation.

About 22,000 U.S. military personnel remained in Iraq as of Thursday after the departure of almost 6,000 over the past week according to the military.

—Hassan Hafidh in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this article.

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