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 Kurdistan's Barzani suggests Iraq might use F-16s against Kurds

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Kurdistan's Barzani suggests Iraq might use F-16s against Kurds  9.4.2012  

Iraq's Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani.
April 9, 2012

EXETER, England, — After increased tensions between the Iraqi and the Kurdish governments, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani told Alhurra TV last Thursday that Baghdad is considering the use of F-16 fighter planes against the Kurds.

In the interview, Barzani says the issue with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not personal, but it is about his dictatorial policies. "I still consider him a brother and a friend," he said. According to Barzani, division commanders in the Iraqi army are supposed to be approved by parliament, but this hasn't happened.

Barzani told Alhurra that he has confronted the Iraqi PM many times and been told by Maliki that he will act, but he hasn’t, and suggested there is talk of a “military solution” to confront the Kurds in Baghdad. Barzani said that in an official meeting with Iraqi military commanders, it was stated that they should wait for F-16s to arrive to help push back the Kurds.

Alhurra asked Barzani if PM Maliki was the person suggesting the use of F-16s against the Kurds, but Barzani did not answer the question. “I know who said it, but forgive me, I can't give more details," he said, adding that Kurds are becoming strangers in the Iraqi army, and are being fought from within. Barzani emphasized that there can never be a military solution to deal with the Kurds.

Kurdish officials had earlier expressed worries over Iraq’s estimated $3 billion deal to buy 18 fighter jets from the United States, and the marginalization of Kurds within the Iraqi army, despite the fact that both the Iraqi chief of staff and the air force commander are Kurds.

Iraqi Kurds fear a repeat of the mass killings by the Iraqi regime. In the 1980s, the Iraqi army killed between 50,000 and 180,000 Kurds in the notorious Anfal campaign. But Iraqi officials have tried to reassure Kurds that the F-16s are meant to protect the borders of Iraq.

On the April 4, Izzat al-Shahbandar, member of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, claimed on Al-Jazeera that the Kurds were trying to weaken the government and deprive them of heavy weapons. “There is a Kurdish effort to prevent a strong Iraqi state in terms of weapons, funds and Arab relations. We were deprived of our right to write in the constitution that Iraq is an Arab country."

Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told Rudaw that it remains a possibility that Baghdad will use the Iraqi army against the Kurds. “To my knowledge, Barzani's comments are based on solid information straight from the horse's mouth. Why do you think Shia rulers turned from committed federalists to staunch centralists? I always warned that we should expect that when they have a strong army. Soon they will have F-16s.”

But other analysts rule out the possible use of F-16s against Kurds. Reidar Visser, research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, known for his frequent commentary on Iraqi affairs, suggests that, “The only scenario in which the use of military force by Baghdad would be probable is in the case of a formal, unilateral annexation of Kirkuk by the Kurds.”

He added that, when Barzani mentioned the F-16s, “It sounded more like fully fledged warfare than skirmishes and clashes. There can be similar episodes to Khanaqin, etc., absolutely. But I think they will stay within certain boundaries unless the KRG moves to formally annex areas.”

In 2008, the disputed city of Khanaqin was the center of a face-off between Kurdish and Iraqi armed forces. According to the Christian Science Monitor, there was threat of a much wider conflict along the 300-mile fault line that divides the Kurds from the Arab parts of Iraq. In the past, U.S. forces established joint patrols and acted as peacemakers to prevent tensions from erupting in territories claimed by Baghdad and Erbil, but now the U.S. army isn’t in Iraq.

In November 2011, the handover of the Kirkuk airport to Iraqi authorities by U.S. forces sparked tensions between local Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi army over who should control it. Eventually, the Iraqi PM turned it into a civilian airport rather than one controlled by the Iraqi army. After the decision, there have been no tensions in Kirkuk between Kurdish and Iraqi security forces.

Hayder al-Khoei, a researcher at the London-based Centre for Academic Shi'a Studies, agrees that renewed tensions in the disputed areas are possible. “Some minor skirmishes possibly and maybe a few Mexican standoffs that go wrong. But no major military clashes. It's far too costly for both sides and eventually they will sit down in secret and negotiate a new division of the cake.”

He added that it is “nonsense” to consider that Baghdad would use F-16s against the Kurds. “Turkey has far more advanced fighter jets than Iraq could hope to have and cannot solve the PKK problem with military power. Even if the threat of pushing back the Kurds with F-16s was meant in the context of deploying gunboat diplomacy, it is highly unlikely the Kurds will be intimidated.”

Ben van Heuvelen, managing editor of Iraq Oil Report, based in Iraq, says the long-standing disputes between Kurdistan and Baghdad escalated into a full-blown crisis last week amidst the postponement of the national conference meant to reconcile the factions. “It began when the Kurds shut off oil exports. Then, Shahristani threatened to make cuts to Kurdistan's share of the federal budget.”

Van Heuvelen thinks Barzani’s statement has to do with his recent visit to the United States to request they form a “special partnership” with the Kurds. “The Obama administration's response seems to have been, ‘We support you, but within the context of a unified, federal Iraq.’ In other words, the U.S. seems to have rebuffed Barzani's request and reaffirmed its support of Maliki,” van Heuvelen added.

The American journalist thinks Barzani wants to send a message to Washington. “When Barzani talks about a 'military solution' from Baghdad, I read those statements as a message to Washington. I think he is warning the Obama administration that they can't give Maliki a carte blanche, otherwise it will endanger the Kurds.”

By Wladimir van Wilgenburg

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