Is Trouble Brewing for the Kurds?

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To many Western minds, the Kurdish-dominated, mountainous northern part of Iraq is an island of relative stability amidst the chaos and bloodshed that wreak havoc in the rest of the country. In fact, with the Kurds boxed in on all sides by jealous and often unfriendly neighbors, that image has always been a bit misguided. But lately the sectarian tensions that surround the Kurdish enclave have begun to make their presence felt more strongly, threatening not just the Kurds' way of life but U.S. hopes for bringing some measure of peace and stability to all of Iraq.

In recent weeks Turkey and Iran, two neighbors that worry about the separatist aspirations of their own significant minority Kurdish populations, have tightened the noose around the Iraqi Kurds. As Turkey's civil war against Kurdish separatist guerrillas — an independent radical group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK — has escalated since the beginning of the year, the Turkish army has begun massing at the Iraqi border. Last week, Turkish commandos began crossing the border to pursue PKK fighters who take refuge in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Iranian Army on Monday shelled Kurdish villages in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, an area inhabited by PKK guerillas and used as a launching pad for Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy in Iran

But the Kurds are facing possibly growing problems not just from across its borders. Iraq's Arab majority has long suspected that the Kurds want to break apart their country and take northern Iraq's rich oilfields with them, and that suspicion fueled recent reports that hundreds of Shi'ite Arab militiamen have moved into the northern city of Kirkuk.

U.S. military and diplomatic officials have claimed that radical cleric Muqtada Al Sadr — accused by the U.S. of sectarian reprisals in Baghad and elsewhere in southern Iraq — and the country's largest Shi'ite party have started to send in small numbers of their armed loyalists. The status of Kirkuk, officially to be decided in a referendum by the end of 2007, is one of the most contentious issues facing the new Iraqi government; though claimed by the Kurds, it is controlled by Baghdad, which is reluctant to part with its vast oilfields.

But the reports of militiamen decamping to Kirkuk in force may be inaccurate. According to Iraqi laws designed to preserve the fragile ethnic balance of the city, no one can move into Kirkuk without the permission of the Kirkuk governorate, and that permission has not been granted, according to Rebwar Talabani, the deputy governor of Kirkuk. A small number of families have fled to Kirkuk from Baghdad, "but we will not accept them as citizens of Kirkuk and we will not allow them to stay here," he said. "What people say about the Sadr movement is exaggerated by the media. We don't have any evidence of that."

The Kurds' army, the 95,000-strong Peshmerga militia (the name literally means "those who face death"), is the largest and most disciplined in Iraq, and would be a formidable guerrilla force if fighting started in the mountains of their homeland. On the other hand, many Shi'ites have insisted that if the new Iraqi government is going to crack down on and try to disband ethnic militias, then the Peshmerga shouldn't be exempted.

As for the Kurds' neighbors, Turkey stands to lose a lot of business from a confrontation. Its trade with Iraq, especially in the form of oil products, has skyrocketed since the American-led occupation, and almost all of it passes through Kurdish territory.

The wild card in the situation is Iran. The U.S. has long accused Iran of helping to destabilize Iraq, and the timing of its military foray into Iraqi territory is significant. Just as Iran faces international isolation over its nuclear enrichtment program and talk of possible U.S. military action in Iran is running high in Washington, the attack appears to be a calculated warning to the U.S. that however bad things are now in Iraq, they could get even worse. And as has so often happened in their tragic history, the Kurds could be the first, though certainly not the only, casualty.

With reporting by Rebaz Ali/ Arbil