Jack Serle

Departing Americans, parlous future

In Kurdistan on December 17, 2011 at 9:18 AM

The final week of the United States’ near decade-long Mesopotamian misadventure is here. The last American soldiers will high-tail it across the Kuwaiti border by 22 December.

US armoured vehicles are lined up for inspection

Copyright US Army

From this day forward, depending on who you believe, Iraq will: descend into the fire and brimstone, sectarian bloodbath horrors of 2006-2008; become Tehran’s Princely State; gradually haul itself out of the morass, paying its way to prosperity with its humungous oil reserves; be invaded by Iran, Turkey or Syria; or stagnate and persist in the present state of internecine sniping.

I have penned a few words for the journalist safety charity the International News Safety Institute. Writing on the subject of the US departure and how it concerns journalists in the region, my interviewees were pretty sure that uncertain though the future is, things are not likely to get better soon.

The question on the lips of the people of Erbil therefore is: what happens in Kurdistan Region?

Last night I heard a chilling suggestion. The northern Kurdistan Region, on the up and up, will be the target of the violent expression of the south’s ire. I was told the Kurds are gearing up to defend their border from the south because Baghdad is getting ready to throw its weight around. The south of Iraq, my source predicted, is facing two decades of corruption and conflict and, if it is not careful, Kurdistan Region will feel the effects.

*****

The rift between Erbil and Baghdad is tangible if not yet violent. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been trying to break free from the Arab south for many decades.

The city of Kirkuk and its surrounding lands, along with other cities, are the so-called “disputed territories”. Kirkuk was a Kurdish city but Saddam Hussein’s brutal policy of “Arabization” – clearing out non-Arab families forcibly and either bulldozing their village to dust or replacing them with Arabs from the south of Iraq. A part of the horrific Al-Anfal campaign, it changed the city’s demographics. Three different ethnic groups now vie for control of the Kirkuk, with bloody consequences.

Baghdad does not want to relinquish control of oil rich Kirkuk. Erbil wants to bring it north of the internal border.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution sets out a series of steps to be taken, culminating in a referendum, to resolve the territory dispute. The article says the issue of Kirkuk has to be resolved by 2007. Overdue by four years and no sign of resolution – the Kirkuk Question is testament to the political battle between Kurdistan and federal Iraq.

That battle burns hot at times and never hotter than when the source of so much tension comes to the fore – oil. The ExxonMobil Corp. debacle poured copious quantities of the black stuff on the flames.

Baghdad wants to keep control of who gets to sign contracts with foreign oil companies and what kind of contracts they are, who gets to set the export quotas, who gets the lion’s share of the money. Erbil wants autonomy from Baghdad’s centralist mentality. That leeway would give Erbil the prestige and income to start thinking more seriously about independence.

*****

The relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is fractious, frosty, at times furious. But I do not believe it would mean open conflict between the two portions of Iraq. I think Baghdad know how bad an idea that would be. Besides, the people of the south are going to be far too busy fighting one another.

That said people in Erbil are nervy, understandably. At the start of this month gangs of men, incited by political tensions in Duhok Governorate, went on the rampage. Liquor shops, massage and beauty parlours and bars were raided and burnt to the ground in Zakho. Reports have said the vagabonds were drunk and drinking when they went on their spree of arson and looting.

This inflamed a violent reaction; the headquarters of the Kurdistan Islamic Union were torched along with some of their associated TV stations.

The KIU were blamed for the initial bout of violence. Crisis talks followed with something of a crackdown in the region.

It is emerging now that the truth is not nearly as clear cut as some would have people think. Some Kurds now say the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party were behind the whole shebang. A premeditated campaign to discredit the KIU, scare some people as the US leave that security is deteriorating, and cement KDP’s hold on power.

*****

A US Chinook silhouette flies across a sepia sun

Copyright US Army

Iraq without American forces is a land torn up by too many competing interests, soaked in too much blood. We have not reached a nadir, I do not believe things can only get better. But I do not believe without the American onlookers Iraq is doomed to plummet, down is not the only way.

There are too many old wounds caused by Arab against Kurd or Sunni versus Shiite for all to be sweetness and light. However Iraqi’s have self-determination. There is the capacity for Shiite to govern, not just the Sunni minority.

There are sources of solace in this dark time before the post-US dawn, hopefully it will be the first rays of a bright future.

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