Syria border standoff a new front in
Iraq-Kurdistan rift: Analysis
By Patrick Markey - Reuters
August 8, 2012
KALE,— Beneath the green, white and red
Kurdistan flag, Kurdish Peshmerga troops keep watch
from hastily built earthen barricades on soldiers of
the Iraqi national army dug in less than a kilometer
away along a desolate stretch of road.
The standoff, for a moment last week so close to
confrontation, is the most dramatic illustration of
a growing rift between Baghdad and the autonomous
northern region of Kurdistan. Frictions over oil
revenues are exacerbated now by conflicting views of
the Syrian rebellion and by territorial disputes
that pose questions about the unity of Iraq.
Over a few days last week, Baghdad and Kurdish
officials separately rushed troops to the Syrian
frontier, ostensibly to secure it against unrest in
the neighboring country; but the mobilization
brought Iraqi Arab and Kurdish soldiers face to face
along their own disputed internal border.
Washington intervened and a potential clash was
avoided. But the standoff opened a new front in
Baghdad's already dangerously fragile relations with
the Kurds in their push for more autonomy from
"We don't want to fight, we are both Iraqis, but if
war comes, we won't run," said Peshmerga Ismael
Murad Khady, sitting under a straw awning to ward
off the sun, the battered stock of a BKC machine gun
pointing not towards some foreign border but at
fellow countrymen manning the Iraqi army post.
Just visible are Iraqi army trenches and tents
beyond the empty stretch of road that is now a de
facto no-man's land in this small frontline. Nearby,
local cars kick up dust as they take sidetracks to
skirt the two posts.
Behind the Peshmerga, a title that means literally
'those who lay down their lives', a battery of
Kurdish 122-mm howitzers directs its barrels towards
the Iraqi line. They are part of the heavier armour
reinforcements Kurdistan and Iraq drafted into the
disputed area just a kilometre from the Syrian
Always a potential flashpoint, tensions between
Baghdad and Kurdistan escalated after U.S. troops
left in December, removing a buffer between the
Iraqi Arab dominated central government and ethnic
Kurds who have run their own autonomous area since
Iraq's national army units and Peshmerga have faced
off before, only to pull back before clashes as both
regions tested each other's nerves, lacking however
any interest in confrontation.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, a Shi'ite
muslim, and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani have
sparred more aggressively since America's
withdrawal, as Kurdistan chaffs against central
At the heart of their dispute are contested
territories claimed by Iraqi Arabs and Kurds and
crude reserves now attracting majors like Exxon and
Chevron to Kurdistan, upsetting Baghdad, which says
it controls rights to develop oil.
Though autonomous, Kurdistan still relies on Baghdad
for its share of the national oil revenues.
Kurdistan is growing increasingly closer to
neighbour Turkey as it talks about ways to export
its own oil and not rely on Baghdad. Maliki's
government accuses Kurdistan of violating the law by
signing deals with oil majors.
The rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
has only widened the rift between Baghdad and Erbil.
They find themselves in opposing corners of a
regional struggle. Iraq with Syrian ally Iran is
resisting calls for Assad to go. Kurdistan is in
talks with the Syrian Kurdish opposition and closer
to Turkey, a sponsor of Assad foes.
"In addition to the local dimension to this, there
is the Syrian one," said Joost Hiltermann at
International Crisis Group. "Control over the border
and what crosses it, is therefore of great
RIVALS AND NEIGHBOURS
Those rivalries were clear when Iraqi troops began
deploying to Syria's borders to help control
refugees and spillover, and Peshmerga soldiers
refused them permission to move into what they
considered a Kurdish part of their disputed areas.
After calls from Washington, Kurdish government
sources say, both sides agreed on Sunday to
cooperate to avoid a flareup and to withdraw troops
once Syria's crisis ends.
But the reinforcements remain in place.
It was not the first time top U.S. officials have
stepped into Iraq's political fray.
Last year, Peshmerga sent 10,000 fighters to the
disputed oil city of Kirkuk, officially to protect
citizens there. Their presence sparked a massive
U.S. effort to calm tensions.
It took a month before the Peshmerga pulled its
fighters back. Analysts said the move was in part a
Kurdish test of Maliki's resolve once the American
troops had gone.
Kurdish officials say Peshmerga have long controlled
the area near the Syrian border in disputed parts of
Ninawa province and saw no need for Iraqi army
deployment. Iraqi national border police are already
Some Kurdish officials see Baghdad's military push
along the border as part of an attempted landgrab.
"This force came without coordination or agreement,
so the Peshmerga decided to stop them," said Jabbar
Yawar, head of Peshmerga forces.
Baghdad countered that Iraq's army should be in
charge of the country's borders, especially because
of the turmoil in Syria,www.ekurd.net
and accused Kurdish authorities of obstructing the
Troops were deployed just as Kurdistan announced oil
deals with France's Total and Russia's Gazprom, the
latest majors to ignore Baghdad's warnings they
risked losing contracts with central government if
they agreed to develop Kurdish fields.
"The bigger issue is that this exposed how relations
between the two are very difficult," one diplomat
said. "The situation in Syria has triggered
In a goodwill measure, Kurdistan on Tuesday said it
restarted 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) in oil
exports a bid to end a payment dispute with the
central government after halting the shipments in
For Baghdad, the Syrian question is a sensitive one.
Iraqi Shi'ite leaders worry a messy collapse of
Syria will lead to the rise of a Sunni regime and
incite Sunni provinces along the border who feel
Maliki is edging them from power.
Baghdad rejects Sunni Arab Gulf calls for Assad to
Barzani's government, in contrast, has hosted Syrian
Kurdish opposition activists, actively pushing them
to join forces to form a united front to prepare for
any post-Assad regime.
Kurdish officials are not shy to admit a long-term
goal of a fully independent Kurdistan, and they see
a chance for Syrian Kurds to win some autonomy after
years of oppression.
Regional power Turkey is increasingly being pulled
into the fray, cultivating Iraqi Kurdistan but at
the same time very wary of fueling broader Kurdish
separatism in its own southeast.
Ankara wants Kurdistan to help guarantee Syria's
Kurdish areas will not become a haven for Kurdish
PKK rebels who are fighting the Ankara government
for more autonomy in the southeast of Turkey.
Ankara's relations with Baghdad have deteriorated
A visit by Turkey's foreign minister to Kirkuk,
whose control is disputed between Iraqi-Arabs and
Kurds, last week prompted Baghdad to accuse Ankara
of meddling. Turkish and Iraqi officials have
exchanged sharp words in public.
The political posturing between Baghdad and Arbil is
not lost on their new frontline in north Iraq, where
Peshmerga troops fortify their trenches, run through
drills and wait out an end to the impasse.
"We are just here to defend ourselves," said
Peshmerga General Sarbaz Mamund. "They wait for
orders from their political leaders, and so do we.
But this area is Kurdish, just ask the people here."
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