Iraqi Kurds serve warning as U.S.
withdrawal nears: Analysis
August 1, 2011
KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region,
— When Iraq's northern Kurdistan region sent a
division of troops to surround Kirkuk in February,
it may have been a signal of the delicate balancing
act to come when U.S. forces leave the disputed oil
Officially, the 10,000 or so peshmerga fighters were
there to protect Kirkukis from any violence
associated with nationwide protests. But their
presence sparked a furious diplomatic offensive by
the United States to calm tensions between the
central government in Baghdad and Arbil, the Kurdish
The deployment may have been a trial balloon,
analysts said, to test Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki
and to warn Baghdad and Washington that U.S. troops
are needed as a buffer in the disputed northern
territories claimed by both capitals.
A U.S. soldier attached to the Golden Lions forces
walks past a girl carrying her doll, during a patrol
in the city of Kirkuk, July 20, 2011. Photo: Reuters
"The Kurdish military maneuver in Kirkuk in February
was both a message to the U.S. to keep its troops on
the ground beyond 2011 - which is a Kurdish interest
- and a way of testing the resolve of the Baghdad
government," said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with
International Crisis Group.
It took a month to persuade semi-autonomous
Kurdistan, comprised of three northern provinces, to
withdraw the unit.
"It was a lot of diplomacy in saying 'look this
isn't right. It's upsetting the area. It doesn't
lead to stability,'" said Colonel Michael Pappal,
commander of the U.S. Devil Brigade in Kirkuk. "It
showed to me that a third party was necessary for
that to happen."
Eight years after the United States ousted Saddam
Hussein, Iraq is still building its police and army
to battle a lethal Sunni Islamist insurgency and
Shi'ite militias within,www.ekurd.netas
well as defending against external threats.
As violence ebbs, Kirkuk and other disputed northern
areas are considered potential flashpoints for
future conflict in a country hobbled by ethnic,
religious and political strife.
The late February incursion was no
spur-of-the-moment decision and prompted a quick
response from the Americans, who told Kurdish
commanders their soldiers would not be allowed into
Kirkuk, U.S. military officials said.
"You don't send a division across a border without a
lot of planning and preparation ... it takes a while
to put an army on the road and that's what they
did," said Lieutenant Colonel Joe Holland, a U.S.
commander in Kirkuk.
The unit was 12,000 strong, a Kurdish official told
Reuters, while the U.S. military estimated it at
8,000-9,000. Sources said the Kurds had AK-47s,
artillery and armored vehicles.
CLOSE TO BLOWS
Holland said it was the third time in 20 years the
Kurds had moved into the Kirkuk area; the first in
1991 after the invasion of Kuwait and the second in
2003 when Saddam was ousted.
Maliki's government demanded the peshmerga withdraw
and the Kurdistan Regional Government at first
refused, escalating tensions. Iraqi and Kurdish
troops have come close to blows in the past two
years as Baghdad tightened its grip on Kirkuk.
Iraqi officials said the incursion was illegal.
Officially, the city -- which by some estimates sits
atop 4 percent of the world's oil reserves -- is
secured by central government forces.
"The effect was a significant schism in the
relationship between us and the Kurds," Holland
Kirkuk has suffered huge population upheavals in
recent decades, from Saddam's "Arabization"
campaigns to more recent moves by Kurds to reclaim
parts of the city.
"They were sending a message to the central
government, saying 'we can enter Kirkuk any time and
you cannot stop us,'" a senior Iraqi Defense
Ministry official told Reuters.
The official said the KRG would not invade Kirkuk
after the U.S. leaves but would seek to displace
Arabs. He said the Kurd population had soared from
150,000 to 350,000 since 2003.
The peshmerga, however, represent a formidable
challenge to the Iraqi army. The Kurds have 100,000
troops, better weaponry and experienced leaders, the
"After 2003, they captured the former Iraqi army
tanks. About 4,000 tanks left by the former Iraqi
army in the streets and cities disappeared, and our
investigations indicate that the Kurds have most of
them and Iran got the rest," he said.
The peshmerga deployment served notice that without
the neutral buffer of U.S. forces, the Kurdish
region might "feel compelled to use military muscle
to defend its interests," said Wayne White, an
analyst with the Middle East Institute.
"So, while a signal that the KRG will not tolerate
any perceived trampling of its interests in Kirkuk,
this deployment also was meant as a reminder to both
Washington and Baghdad that greater consideration
should be given to the prolongation of a more
meaningful U.S. presence," he said.
But because Maliki, perhaps calculating that the
Americans would pressure their Kurdish allies to
withdraw, did not offer a serious challenge, the
deployment was not an effective trial run for
securing Kurdish control of Kirkuk, Hiltermann said.
"This will have to wait till the time when U.S.
troops will no longer be there," he said. "At that
point, all bets are off and tensions could easily
escalate, intentionally or inadvertently, to a
bigger conflict, at least as long as the dispute
between Baghdad and Arbil remains unsettled."
By Jim Loney - Reuters
Copyright ©, respective
author or news agency,
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