Does the Status of Forces Agreement Spell Doom for Kurds?


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.

The security deal, officially termed the agreement of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, also contains several references to the U.S. and Iraqi troops jointly combating "outlawed" armed groups. Such phrases have raised alarms among Kurds as to how they might be interpreted in the future.

While tensions between Shia and Sunni sects have considerably eased over the past year, those between Kurds and Baghdad have dramatically increased. There are several thorny unsettled issues between Baghdad and Kurds such as territory and oil disputes that at any time might erupt in violence.

Last August, Kurdish armed forces known as Peshmarga and the Iraqi army were on the brink of a conflict in areas north of volatile Diyala province. During those tensions, Sami al-Askari, a close aide to Maliki, termed Kurdish Peshmargas present in Diyala "outlawed militias".

Tensions were defused then through U.S. mediation. But if the SOFA takes effect, Kurds will find themselves not only on the opposite side of the trench against the Iraqi army, but the U.S. troops as well. That means Kurds will risk antagonizing their major ally in the country.

The agreement requires the U.S. to help bring Iraq out of "Chapter Seven" status at the United Nations, which recognized Iraq as a threat to international peace and security in 1991 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. That will allow Iraq to more easily procure advanced weaponry for its army, something over which Kurdish officials have publicly expressed concern.

Last September, Kurdish parliamentary speaker Adnan Mufti asked the Iraqi government to give guarantees that it will not use such weapons against Kurds. Today, the major military challenge to the country's army is no longer Mahdi army or al Qaeda, but Kurds.

Amid increasing fears among Kurds about the stakes of this agreement, some have called for an alternative by reviving a United Nations' resolution that committed the international community to protecting Kurds in Iraq. However, the mainstream Kurdish leadership has not agreed to that.

The U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 688 in 1991 when theIraqi army targeted Kurdish civilians during their uprising against Saddam Hussein. The resolution provided international protection for Kurds by setting up a safe haven in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Experts say it is still legally effective.

Saadi Barzinji, a senior Kurdish lawmaker in Baghdad, believes Kurds can try to resort to Resolution 688 of the United Nations, but not as long as the security deal has any chances of passing.

"If the situation in Iraq got disrupted, then Kurds can ask the same forces who protected them before under Resolution 688 to do the same," Barzinji told IPS in a phone interview from Baghdad. "This means we might even have to ask for the establishment of a U.S. military base in Kurdistan."

But with the U.S. rushing to pull out of Iraq, Kurdish hopes of convincing Washington to establish a military base on their soil appears to be far-fetched.

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