Mohammed A. Salih

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.

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Tensions Rising Between Kurds and Iraqi Government

Tensions between Kurds and the Iraqi government over disputed territory have heightened recently, raising fears that they might lead to ethnic clashes between Kurds and Arabs at a time when the war-torn country is slowly recovering from years of sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Arabs.

Last month, the Iraqi Army deployed units to areas under Kurdish control in volatile northern Diyala Province, as part of its "Operation Good Tidings" to expand government authority over the area.

The center of the controversial move was Khanaqin, 140 kilometers northeast of Baghdad. It is a small, largely Kurdish town that has oil reserves and is close to the Iranian border. Kurdish Peshmarga troops left their bases in the nearby districts of Jalawla, Saadiya and Qara Tapa in northern Diyala after receiving warnings from the Iraqi Army.

In a hasty face-saving move, Iraqi and Kurdish officials tentatively agreed that neither Peshmarga nor Iraqi troops should go to the town. But to the Kurds' advantage, the local predominantly Kurdish police force will be in charge of security.

Kurds see the deployment as a test of their power and believe if they withdraw from Khanaqin, the Iraqi Army will chase them out of other strategic contested locations in and around oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq.

"The current problem is over borders, because they [the Iraqi government] believe the borders of Kurdistan should be where the former ousted regime [of President Saddam Hussein] decided on," said Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, in a meeting with Kurdish journalists on September 28th.

"From now on, if Iraq sends its forces to somewhere in disputed areas, then we will dispatch our forces to the same spot as well. If they send one brigade, we will send two," Barzani said.

His remarks raised the current tensions to a new level, signaling that Kurds will not shy away from fighting the army of the very government whose president is Kurdish, as well as some key ministers.

Last month, Sheikh Homam al-Hamudi, a Shia Arab who heads the Iraqi Parliament's foreign relations committee, warned Kurds on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that "any [Kurdish] Peshmarga who violates the blue line will be chased out by the [Iraqi] security forces."

The blue line refers to the official border between areas under Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) jurisdiction and the rest of Iraq. KRG runs the three northern provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk and has no official jurisdiction over Khanaqin, Kirkuk and Nineveh province, home to the city of Mosul.

In the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds gained unprecedented power and recognition in the country's politics and their relations with Baghdad went through an exceptional period of apparent friendship.

Kurds consider Khanaqin, Kirkuk and towns around Mosul as part of their historic homeland. Under Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were expelled from those areas and replaced by Arab settlers from the central and southern parts of the country. Now Arabs charge Kurds with a reverse campaign. Ethnic claims of ownership among Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans -- people of Turkish origin -- have turned those areas into potentially explosive flashpoints.

The recent developments marked the advent of a new era in Iraq's post-war politics and a sign, as Kurdish media sometimes say, that the "honeymoon" between Kurds and the Iraqi government is over.

For the first time, the Shia-led government of Maliki is militarily challenging Kurds who are partners in his coalition government. Since the overthrow of Hussein, Shias and Kurds have given the appearance of a political alliance. When several Shia, Sunni and secular groups withdrew from Maliki's government in 2006, it was Kurds who propped up his cabinet by staying and backing him.

But as the security situation in the country has improved over the past year, Maliki's confidence appears to have grown in parallel. That has meant that he now finds himself in a position to take on old friends, typical of Iraqi politics notorious for short-lived and often self-serving political alliances.

The recent moves by the Iraqi Army sent shockwaves among Kurds, reviving images of the bitter history of their relations with various central governments in Baghdad. Kurds have been at war with all virtually governments since the establishment of Iraq in 1921 up to 2003.

The worst experience was with Hussein, who in 1980s conducted large-scale massacres of Kurds, killing tens of thousands. Last April, the Iraqi Parliament unanimously recognized those massacres as "genocide".

"I think, unfortunately this was an alarm bell as far as we are concerned…Baghdad again followed the practice that when it is weak, it keeps silent toward us, but as soon as it gets powerful, starts to threaten us," Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the KRG and Massoud's nephew, told Voice of America last week. "We thought in the new Iraq, an Iraq that is rebuilt on a new basis, this issue is over."

In response to what many Iraqi Arabs see as Kurdish encroachment on the authority and powers of the central government, Maliki issued a clear warning, saying that Iraq needs a "strong central government".

"We do not want the central government, as some think, to become just a process of collecting and producing wealth," the London-based pan-Arab daily of al-Hayat quoted Maliki as saying in mid-September.

Distrust between the two sides runs so deep that recently, as the news broke of Iraq's plans to buy advanced military equipment like F-16 jets from the United States, the speaker of the Kurdish Parliament, Adnan Mufti, said that U.S. should insist on guarantees from the Iraqi government that it will not use those weapons against the civilian population as in the past.

Hussein frequently used the army to crush his political opponents, notably Shias and Kurds.

Arab parties charge that Kurds are getting a disproportionate share of the Iraqi budget -- 17 percent -- and that they are over-represented in the federal government institutions in Baghdad.

Observers believe Kurds' position in Iraqi politics is weakening as sectarian Shia-Sunni violence has decreased and Arabs of both sects act more in unison on some key issues, especially those related to Kurds. Pressures from regional powers, especially Turkey, have also had an impact in undermining Kurdish influence in Iraq.

Last February, when the Turkish army launched an incursion into the remote mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan in search of Kurdish guerillas, the Iraqi government merely issued a few statements. And as the U.S. seeks to stabilize Iraq, it is pressuring Kurds to make concessions to Shia and Sunni Arabs.

All this means Kurdish leaders face tough times ahead, especially as major disputes between Baghdad and the KRG over oil, territory and budgets remain unsettled.

Given the potential dangerous course that events in this regard may take, what has happened so far could be the calm before the real storm.

A Possible Deal on Kirkuk?

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 (IPS) -- A possible breakthrough over the fate of the contentious Iraqi province of Kirkuk appears to be underway, which could be a significant source of relief for the United States as it is trying hard to stabilize the country.

On Tuesday, for the first time a top Kurdish official explicitly said Kurds are ready to break a stalemate that has been in place for years, if not decades, raising hopes the potential time bomb of Iraq could be defused.

"In Kirkuk, as Kurds, we are ready for power-sharing," Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency in Dubai.

"We are pushing for a solution, not especially a referendum. We have asked the U.N. to be technically involved because the situation is complicated," he said.

Barzani's remarks signal Kurds' new willingness to compromise over the oil-rich city after longtime resistance to any settlement other than a popular referendum. Because Kurds' numbers have grown hugely in Kirkuk since the end of 2003 war, Kurdish insistence on a referendum was interpreted by others as a desire to take over the city.

"It seems to be good news because [Kurdish leaders Maasoud] Barzani and [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani have been under tremendous pressure from their base to pursue the maximum in various areas, including pieces of territory in Kirkuk and beyond," said Wayne White, who worked as head of State Department's Intelligence Team in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.

Under the Iraqi constitution, a referendum was to be held in Kirkuk late last year in which people would have voted on whether the province would join the Kurdistan region, remain under Baghdad's jurisdiction or be given special status as an independent region.

The referendum was not held, and the deadline was extended for another six months. It expires at the end of June, but it is highly unlikely to take place this month either due to tremendous opposition from various Iraqi groups, neighbouring countries and the U.S. Instead, the United Nations' special envoy to Iraq, Steffan de Mistura, has been tasked with seeking other possible solutions.

While the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies conduct operations to pacify the war-torn country, Kirkuk has long been flashing in the background as a likely point for the eruption of a civil war.

"The U.S. has been counseling restraint [on Kirkuk] because of the danger of upsetting the apple cart of increased security successes," White said.

Kurdish leaders have been in a dilemma for a long time in which they have found it extremely hard to make any major concession on Kirkuk, an issue with a deeply emotional dimension in contemporary Kurdish history. In 1975, the Kurds' autonomy arrangements with Baghdad broke up after Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, grandfather of Nechirvan Barzani, refused to back down on Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. That legacy has been very hard up to now for any Kurdish leader to move away from.

Although a concession on Kirkuk could erode the popularity of the two major Kurdish parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- among Iraq's Kurds and beyond, it can bring them some major gains as well.

Any such deal can improve Kurds' ties with Turkey, which has been indirectly threatening Kurds with military action if they take over Kirkuk. It could also convince the Iraqi government to make serious concessions toward Kurds, for instance, recognizing their controversial oil deals with foreign firms which Baghdad and Washington do not look upon favorably.

And it could improve the prospects of security for Kurdistan and establish trust with the neighboring communities of Sunni Arabs, Turkomans and Shias in Iraq.

The softened stance by Kurdish leaders was welcomed by the city's Turkomans, who have boycotted the Kirkuk provincial council for months. Like Kurds, Turkomans claim ownership of Kirkuk and some of their major political parties have been fiercely resisting an attachment of Kirkuk to the neighboring Kurdish region.

"The Turkomans received Barzani's statements with great optimism," Akram Tarzi, a Turkoman member of the Iraqi parliament from the bloc of young Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Voices of Iraq news agency. ''The Turkoman leadership realised that the Kirkuk cause will not be solved without understanding.''

10% of Active Journalists in Iraq Were Killed in 2006

After an estimated 10 percent of active journalists in Iraq died in 2006, the rest are asking themselves what lies ahead for them in the New Year.

A report released by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB, also known as Reporters sans Frontieres), on the last day of 2006 described Iraq as "the world's most dangerous country for the media." The group said it had called upon Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to put a stop to "hostile accidents" against journalists.

The RWB says 64 journalists and media assistants were killed in Iraq during 2006, "more than twice the number in the 20-year Vietnam war." Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 139 journalists have been killed in Iraq, 90 percent of them Iraqis, RWB says.

The survey says what journalists in Iraq know too well.

"The security situation in Baghdad and other insecure parts of the country made journalists suffer heavily, and be victimised in the worst possible form in the conflict in 2006," Hamid Mohammed Ali, member of the administrative council of the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS) told IPS. The KJF is one of the two press unions in Iraq, with the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate, that are recognised by the International Federation of Journalists.

"Since journalists are doing field work in covering events, they face serious problems and are regularly targeted," he added.

"The point is that every group wants to shut the voice of journalists to prevent the deteriorated situation of Iraq from being shown worldwide," Afif Sarhan, a Lebanese-Brazilian journalist working in Baghdad wrote in an email interview.

"Today, the word journalist means coming death. Hundreds of journalists have been targeted, kidnapped or killed for their stories."

All conflicting parties in Iraq today, from militias to insurgents to the government and U.S. forces are blamed for targeting journalists, imprisoning them or detaining them for interrogation.

But security is not the only problem. The media also suffers from a legal vacuum caused by the lack of a law that could regulate journalistic activities.

The harsh press laws of Saddam Hussein's regime were abolished after his government collapsed, but no law has been created to fill the gap. As a result, many complain of confusion over rights, duties and work limits as journalists.

In the country's northern Kurdistan region, the KJS has drafted a new press law. Although the proposed law has been criticised by many journalists as curbing press freedom, the KJS officials take pride in calling it "the most progressive press law in the entire Middle East region."

"The new press law in Kurdistan prohibits the government from imprisoning journalists, and the highest punishment for a journalist would be fining him," said Hamid Mohammed Ali from KJS.

According to the draft law, journalists will not need government authorisation to publish newspapers, and only need to be registered with the KJS.

Kurdistan has been spared much of the bloodshed engulfing other parts of the country, but many journalists still complain that the KJS has failed to protect their rights in the face of harsh treatment by the government.

"I believe if the KJS is there to protect my rights as a journalist and defend me, then they are almost non-existent, because they mainly represent political parties in the region," Rahman Gharib, correspondent for the prominent Hawlati Weekly published in Kurdistan told IPS.

He described 2006 as "a bad history in the relationships between journalists and government in Kurdistan."

Gharib was once detained for three hours and then beaten on two occasions by local security forces in the course of covering mass demonstrations and strikes that engulfed large parts of Kurdistan in 2006. The demonstrations were held against the regional government's failure to providing basic services.

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