Most discussion about the security dangers of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq tends to center on the threats of jihadist insurgents, friction between the Sunni Awakening militias and the Shi'ite-led government, and intra-Shi'ite power struggles. But U.S. commanders in Diyala province believe that mounting tensions between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in the north could produce one of the most dangerous flash points.
U.S. officers in Diyala have spent weeks mediating between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi military over security arrangements for next week's provincial elections. The national army had planned to set up security checkpoints in northern Diyala, just as they will do all over the country on polling day. But the Kurds were furious. While ethnically mixed Diyala is under the jurisdiction of Baghdad, the province's northern section is predominantly Kurdish and falls along the fuzzy but increasingly agitated fault line that separates the Kurdish north from the rest of Iraq. The Kurds complained that the Iraqi army might interfere with their votes and insisted on matching its deployment with Peshmerga forces. After a flurry of helicopter shuttles between Kurdistan and Diyala and well over 40 hours of stubborn negotiation, U.S. commanders last week brokered a deal that will see area security provided by a joint force of Iraqi-army and Peshmerga fighters, with U.S. troops present to make sure everyone stays calm. (See images of Iraq's northern border zone.)
"As long as coalition forces are between us, then we have nothing to be afraid of," said Mullah Bakhtiar, a powerful local Kurdish leader, during a meeting with Lieut. Colonel Mike Kasales, who commands U.S. troops in the area. And that's exactly what has American commanders worried about the situation that will result from U.S. moves to withdraw from Iraq. Similar election-day arrangements had to be brokered for contentious areas of ethnically mixed Nineveh, while the three provinces that fall in Iraqi Kurdistan and the fiercely contested province of Kirkuk, won't vote until later this year.
Election-day arrangements may have been agreed to, but U.S. commanders based along the Kurdish-Arab fault line warn that a failure to resolve the larger issue of where Kurdish autonomy begins and ends before a U.S. withdrawal could be a dangerous mistake.
"President Obama says, 'Hey, we want you guys to accelerate your exit out of there.' There's a lot of anxiety associated with that statement here in Diyala," says Colonel Burt Thompson, the top U.S. military commander in the province. "The Kurds like us because we bring that stability. The Iraqis like us because we bring that stability ... I would not be surprised if you had a U.N. peacekeeping force here, in this part of the world, along the 140 line [dividing Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq] as this thing matures and develops, to keep two belligerents away from each other."
The current Kurdish-Arab tension over ownership of northern Iraq dates back to Saddam Hussein's policies during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when his regime murdered tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands more, resettling the territory with Iraqi Arabs from further south. After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. protected a Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, and after the 2003 invasion, the Peshmerga moved down to take control of parts of Diyala, Nineveh and oil-rich Kirkuk, all of which they claim as historically Kurdish. Iraq's new constitution promised that the future status of those areas would be settled in a referendum, after a census had been held. But the census and the referendum have yet to take place, and the government in Baghdad has begun pushing back against the Kurdistan Regional Government's claims on the disputed zones.
Next week's election is particularly contentious, since it will most likely dilute some of the power of Kurdish politicians in assemblies representing the disputed areas Kurds are currently overrepresented relative to their share of the population, say U.S. officials, because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the 2005 election. A more representative turnout will probably change the local balance of power, which could in turn affect the future negotiations over the status of these areas. That's why local Kurdish leaders are going to great lengths to get out the vote. A high-ranking Kurdish official in Diyala's Khanaqin district said thousands of voters would be bussed down from Suleymaniya province in Kurdistan to cast their votes in Khanaqin. "Their names are registered here. They just work in Suleymaniya," he said. It is unclear what mechanism would prevent those voters from voting again in Suleymaniya's election.
"[The Kurds] think this town belongs to the Kurdistan government," said an Iraqi army officer who was present during the negotiations over election security in Khanaqin. "It was Bush, the father, who made a line [in 1991] where the Iraqi army was not allowed to cross. This town is south of the line. [Disputed polling sites in] Sheikh Baba and Jabara are south of the line too. They want to make the Kurdish government as big as they can."
Underneath the tension over election security, then, is the knottier problem of where to draw the boundaries of the Kurdistan Regional Government's authority. The Kurdish alliance is confident of winning votes in Khanaqin, which was under Peshmerga control until last August. "There are a lot of folks up there who really don't consider themselves being a part of Diyala province," said Thompson at a U.S. base outside Baquba. "You talk to folks, and they're like, 'Governor who? Governor Ra'ad? He never visits us. We don't get anything from Diyala province.' ... The Kurds provide for basic needs. If you've got good, clean water, predictable electricity, roads are being built, kids are going to school, and the quality of life is O.K., then guess where your loyalties and allegiances are going to be."
Neither side is expecting the election to alleviate the growing friction. From the doorstep of his modest farmhouse outside Khanaqin, Mudhar Mohammed Madloum can see a Peshmerga checkpoint on one hill and an Iraqi army checkpoint barely half a mile away. Similar pairings are scattered along Diyala's contentious fault line. "The Peshmerga checkpoint has been here since the fall [of Saddam]. The Iraqi army checkpoint has been here for a few months," said Madloum. "They are not both necessary."
At a meeting with U.S. officials two weeks ago, local Kurdish leaders expressed concern that the forces sent by Baghdad and the Kurdish government to provide election security may not depart after the votes are counted. "I'm worried the Iraqi army won't leave. Then the Peshmerga won't leave. Then we will have a militarized city," the Kurdish mayor of Khanaqin, who asked to remain unnamed, warned. "What if they fought?"
"[Then] we'll see who wins," joked Kasales. Everyone in the room laughed. But once U.S. forces are gone, the reality might not be so funny.