U.S. Must Consider Arab-Kurdish Issues During Drawdown in Iraq
A longstanding, critical factor to the American drawdown in Iraq is the historical ethnic tension between the Kurds and Arabs of Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq are concentrated in the northern part of the country, constituting between 15%-20% of the total population, and they also have a significant presence in Turkey, Iran and Syria, being historically located in the mountainous regions within these countries. For years, these Kurdish populations in the Middle East have fought for autonomy in the hopes of creating their own Kurdish state. In effect, this has created a confrontational relationship between them and the governments of countries in which they live.
Iraq is no different. The 2003 American invasion gave the Kurds hope that their goal for self-governance would be realized. As the day of American withdrawal approaches, Kurdish self-governance becomes more plausible. Since 1991, the Iraqi Kurds governed a semiautonomous region, called Kurdistan, within Iraq, and the president of the region, Massoud Barzani, has helped to make it the most prosperous region of Iraq. It has its own army, intelligence service, parliament, government and judiciary and holds its own elections. Additionally, the Iraqi national elections of this year gave Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party a majority in the Kurdish portion of the Iraqi Parliament.
Currently, Arab and Kurdish officials largely argue over power-sharing arrangements in the Kirkuk region, the extent of federalism within the Iraqi state, the terms of a new oil law and several different territorial disputes. Attempts by Arab and Kurd officials to work on these contentious issues have been, at times, resisted successfully by violent insurgents. American troops have played a large role in dealing with these insurgents and in negotiating through crises between the Arabs and Kurds themselves; without their help, things could take a turn for the worse.
It is uncertain what really will happen as the American withdrawal from Iraq continues, but the likelihood of an increase in uprisings and violence against Kurdish and Arab efforts to work together are substantial. The United States is preparing to maintain some presence in northern Iraq, opening embassy branch offices in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk that will enable American diplomats to continue work on Arab and Kurdish issues. But the Kurds’ longstanding goal of autonomy is as strong as ever and could prove to be a major obstacle to long-term Iraqi reconstruction, and the United States needs to take into serious consideration the stakes of the Kurdish-Arab issue as it decides how much to withdraw its involvement in Iraq, because all efforts to stabilize the country may be reversed if this part of the problem is ignored.
Jessica Hredzak is PAI’s Intern in Middle Eastern Affairs.