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Does the Status of Forces Agreement Spell Doom for Kurds?

Is the SOFA takes effect, Kurds could find themselves not only on the opposite side of the trench against the Iraqi army, but U.S. troops as well.


Kurds are divided over a security pact between Iraq and the U.S., approved by a large majority in the Iraqi Parliament Thursday, in what appears to be a potential heavy blow to their major gains since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.

Despite the international media's portrayal of unequivocal unified Kurdish support for the deal, there is an increasing realization within formal and informal Kurdish circles that the Kurds are dooming themselves by approving the deal.

During a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush last month, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani described the pact as being "in the interest of the Iraqi government -- it's in the interest of this country, and we have been and we will continue to support it and support its ratification."

"Kurdish leaders have very fervently talked about approving the agreement and have appeared to be like the number one attorneys for this deal," Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former deputy to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, wrote in Sbeiy, a Kurdish news website he founded. Mustafa resigned from Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan after disagreements over the party management style. "They [Kurdish leaders] have thought they should unconditionally support whatever America does and consider it as good."

The pact, officially termed a withdrawal agreement, requires the U.S. to pull out all its forces from Iraq's land, waters and air by the end of 2011. That will bring to an end eight years of U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Now, the extent of fears are such that senior Kurdish lawmakers broke their silence in the past few days demanding amendments to the deal in a way that would curb the central government's hand in using the country's military to "settle scores" with its political opponents.

What makes it even more worrying for Kurds is that the deal commits the U.S. military to back the Iraqi army in its operations. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has firmly rejected any changes, saying that parliamentarians should either accept the deal in its entirety or reject it altogether.

Kurdish leaders' support for the deal emanates from an assumption that the presence of U.S. forces in the country for a longer time will be in their interests. But ironically, there are provisions in the deal that can ensnare Kurds and jeopardize their political future. One such provision about preserving Iraq's "territorial integrity" through U.S. assistance is believed by many Kurds to be clearly aimed at their independence-seeking tendencies.

Preserving "territorial integrity" has been the classic code-phrase various governments in the region have used to crush Kurdish secessionist movements, such as in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, where sizeable restive Kurdish populations live. No other force has ever been deemed as strong a threat to Iraq's territorial integrity as Kurds since the establishment of the country in early 1920s.

Some Kurdish parliamentarians demanded that an "honor pact" be signed among all Iraqi factions that would prevent the central government or any faction from using force to determine the outcome of political disagreements.

Sirwan Zahawi, a Kurdish lawmaker, told Kurdish Peyamner news agency that among priorities for Kurds are that central government should not send its army to Kurdistan or any of the disputed territories between Kurds and Arabs. Disputed territories are large swaths of land rich with natural resources like oil that the Iraqi central and autonomous Kurdish governments disagree over who should control them. Kurds officially control only the three northern provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya known as Kurdistan, but have a strong presence in the disputed territories.