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 Kurds seek advantage in their disputes with Baghdad

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Kurds seek advantage in their disputes with Baghdad  30.12.2011  
By Rania El Gamal - Reuters

Iraqi Kurds manoeuvre in political minefield. Sunni vice president given sanctuary in Kurdistan. Kurds fear Maliki is concentrating too much power.

December 30, 2011

ERBIL-Hewlêr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Iraqi Kurds, at odds with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over oil and power, have thrown down another challenge to the Shi'ite-led central government by giving refuge to Iraq's Sunni Muslim vice-president, despite a Baghdad warrant for his arrest.

The Kurds, whose kingmaking role in Iraqi electoral politics has been eroded by Maliki's assertion of his own authority, will try to use Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi's plight to gain leverage in their own disputes with Baghdad, analysts say.

They, like Maliki and other Iraqi politicians, are playing for high stakes in a potentially destabilising game following the U.S. withdrawal from a nation whose ethnic and sectarian struggles may be affected by the uprising in Syria next door.

Shi'ite factions which emerged as winners from the U.S. invasion of Iraq fret that a Sunni government may replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shi'ite Iran, and embolden Iraqi Sunnis whose heartlands border Syria.

"The fact that the Kurds have ended up in the middle of this crisis - and are likely being lobbied by the U.S. to resolve the crisis rather than exacerbate it - means that they are returning to their kingmaker role once again," said Gala Riani, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.

"It is likely that the Kurds will lay low, not inflame the situation and try to mediate whilst at the same time strengthen their hands vis-a-vis the federal government to try to resolve some outstanding issues."

The Kurds are disgruntled over Maliki's failure to keep promises to solve long-standing disputes over oil contracts, land and constitutional rights that the Shi'ite leader made when he formed his power-sharing government last year

They also fear Maliki is consolidating power in his own hands and sidelining old Sunni rivals such as Hashemi and his own deputy Saleh al-Mutlaq. Maliki asked parliament to fire Mutlaq for comparing him with deposed leader Saddam Hussein.


Baghdad ordered Hashemi's arrest this month over accusations that he was running death squads, a charge he denies.

Maliki has asked the regional government in semi-autonomous Kurdistan to hand Hashemi over, but it seems unlikely to comply.

Kurdish sources said the decision to protect Hashemi was not taken lightly, given its potential to exacerbate tensions between Arbil and Baghdad. Handing him back would be far worse, not only for relations between Shi'ites and Sunnis, but also between Kurds and Sunnis, they said.

Parts of Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala provinces, neighbouring the three provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, are territories disputed between Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

"Maliki wants to marginalise the Sunnis and doesn't want to meet the Kurdish demands and this is not acceptable," said Salahaddin Babaker, spokesman for the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

Maliki's State of Law bloc is in power thanks to the Kurds, who supported him in return for written pledges to resolve issues such as a long-awaited oil and gas law, the disputed territories and pay for the Kurdish peshmerga security forces.

The Sunni-supported Iraqiya bloc won the most seats in a March 2010 parliamentary election, but could not forge a ruling coalition. It won some key posts in an eventual power-sharing deal. Hashemi and Mutlaq are prominent leaders in Iraqiya.

"Iraqiya and State of Law blocs want Kurdish support," Babaker said. "It is natural to sympathise with Iraqiya and their leaders, but we can use this (the Hashemi dispute) as a way to pressure Maliki to meet the Kurdish demands."

The Kurds are seeking a better hand in talks with Maliki's government over the disputed territories and Kurdish oil deals with U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil, which Baghdad says are illegal.

Since Iraq's sectarian carnage in 2006-07, the central government in Baghdad has grown stronger, violence has fallen and political coalitions have become more cross-sectarian, trends that recent power struggles may call into question.


The Kurds have much to lose in their northern enclave.

Brutally suppressed under Saddam, they became one of the nation's most cohesive political forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, strengthened by U.S. support and by maintaining their own unity, forged after an intra-Kurdish civil war in the 1990s.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Western powers and Turkey created a safe haven in northern Iraq for Kurds, who since the 2003 invasion have sought to use their natural resources to start building a modern quasi-state within a federal Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan, dubbed "the other Iraq", has its own ministries, parliament and security forces. Red, white, and green Kurdish flags flutter over buildings in Arbil, the Kurdish capital and seat of the regional government.

Arbil is packed with new high-rise buildings and shopping malls. Newly built ring roads and overpasses teem with shiny Korean and Japanese cars and the occasional high-end off-roader.

Kurdistan has attracted foreign investment and given its residents better security and living standards than in the rest of Iraq, where bombs and power cuts are part of everyday life.

Kurds have long dreamt of independence, but the northern region, surrounded by Syria, Turkey and Iran, still depends largely on Iraq, making nationhood unrealistic for now.

Kurdistan faces shelling and air strikes from neighbouring Turkey and Iran aimed at camps run by Kurdish rebel groups, the PKK and PJAK, hiding out in Iraq's mountain borderlands.

And despite foreign investment in real estate and tourism, Kurdistan depends on its 17 percent share of the federal budget, based on its population. About 95 percent of that budget comes from Iraq's nearly 2.2 million barrels per day of oil exports.

Nevertheless, its relative success has made the Kurdish north a model eyed by other regions seeking more autonomy.

Complaining of political wrangling in Baghdad and rivalry among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties, provinces such as the mainly Shi'ite southern oil hub of Basra and the mainly Sunni Salahuddin and Diyala in the centre and west of Iraq have been calling for regional autonomy.

The constitution supports autonomy, but Maliki's government has tried to quieten the movement, partly out of concern that sub-dividing Iraq further could lead to instability after the U.S. withdrawal. Kurds beg to differ.

"Iraq geographically and politically has proven to everyone that it is divided into three parts, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parts," said Shawan Mohammed Taha, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament. "We in Kurdistan support establishing new regions according to the constitutional procedures."

He argued that creating new regions did not imply the division of Iraq, but a way of staying together.

"Either we are able to co-exist in a good way or we will end up in bloodshed."

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