Kurds in the way

While most eyes are fixed on the presidential race to the top and Wall Street's race to the bottom, Iraq continues to simmer. The longer it cooks, the more bitter.

Yes, suicide bombing is down, but political tension is way, way up, and the violence is far from over. But why? Why such a logjam over the fragile Iraq puppet government and its legislative agenda? Why is the U.S. playing such hardball on this?

It's the Kurds, fouling the peace formula. But can you blame them?

One of the best recent stories comes from Sam Dagher in the New York Times:

Tension has risen to the point that last week American commanders held a series of emergency meetings with the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials, seeking to head off violence essentially between factions of the Iraqi government.

For the best background, see the latest International Crisis Group report, "Oil for Soil: Toward a Grand Bargain on Iraq and the Kurds":

Despite some progress, Iraq's legislative agenda, promoted by the U.S. in order to capitalise on recent security gains, is bogged down. The main culprit is a dispute over territories claimed by the Kurds as historically belonging to Kurdistan — territories that contain as much as 13 per cent of Iraq's proven oil reserves.

This conflict reflects a deep schism between Arabs and Kurds that began with the creation of modern Iraq after World War I; has simmered for decades, marked by intermittent conflict and accommodation; and was revitalised due to the vacuum and resulting opportunities generated by the Baath regime's demise in 2003.

In its ethnically-driven intensity, ability to drag in regional players such as Turkey and Iran and potentially devastating impact on efforts to rebuild a fragmented state, it matches and arguably exceeds the Sunni-Shiite divide that spawned the 2005-2007 sectarian war.

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Remember when the Bush regime early on in the Iraq Debacle declared that the Kurds were wonderful because northern Iraq was relatively peaceful? Our soldiers took R&R in their swimming pools, and Kirkuk was a lot more peaceful than anywhere else in Iraq.

But it's been three years since we wore out our welcome up there in northern Iraq.

The Kurds, whose population sprawls across several countries (see map above), continue to be extremely pissed off about not having their own nation and are clinging to their de facto control of northern Iraq. In the fragile thing that is Iraq's government, the Kurds hold the cards and a sizable amount of oil, and they are a tough sell because of their years of struggle against Saddam, the Turks, the Iranians, and everybody else. The ICG report paints an ominous picture:

Stymied in their quest to incorporate disputed territories into the Kurdistan region by constitutional means, Kurdish leaders have signalled their intent to hold politics in Baghdad hostage to their demands.

At the same time, the Iraqi government's growing military assertiveness is challenging the Kurds' de facto control over these territories. Rising acrimony and frustration are jeopardising the current relative peace, undermining prospects for national unity and, in the longer term, threatening Iraq's territorial integrity.

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