Even as Iraq's Sunni-Shi'ite divide appears to be tenuously mending, another seam in the country's patchwork multiethnic and sectarian society is on the verge of unraveling. Territorial disputes between Arabs and Kurds in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala now pose a serious risk of violence.
In recent months, long-standing hostility between the two communities has escalated, whipped up by resurgent Arab secular nationalism. At the federal level, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly said he wants to strengthen Baghdad's hand at the expense of Iraq's 18 provinces, including Kurdistan the semiautonomous three-province Kurdish region in the north much to the chagrin of the federalist-minded Kurds. At the provincial level, newly empowered hard-line Sunni groups like al-Hadba in Mosul, Nineveh's capital, are preparing to expand their political clout. (See a TIME photographer's diary of the Iraq conflict.)
Al-Hadba won 19 of the provincial council's 37 seats during elections in January, running on an anti-Kurdish platform in the still violent mixed but predominantly Sunni province. Its victory meant a realignment of power away from the minority Kurds who held disproportionate sway due to a Sunni electoral boycott in 2005. However, it has also set the stage for a showdown between the two groups. (See an analysis of Iraq's future.)
At stake is the control of disputed territories. Kurds say they are reclaiming areas like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that was theirs until Saddam Hussein forcibly removed them from it. Arabs say the land wasn't Kurdish to begin with. In the meantime, Kurdish peshmerga militia forces, which operate independently of Baghdad and answer to Kurdistan's regional government, have steadily pushed south of their United Nationsdelineated border into contested zones.
In Nineveh, al-Hadba has vowed to push them back. "We reject the presence of the peshmerga," says Atheel Nujaifi, the party's leader and the presumptive governor of Nineveh. "We want the only force in Nineveh province to be a legitimate government force that follows the command of the Iraqi security forces." Top U.S. military commanders in Nineveh say Nujaifi's stance is just electoral bluster. But he insists he is being serious. Nujaifi says that as soon as he is sworn in and the new government is seated, he will request that Baghdad formally ask the Kurdish regional government in Erbil to withdraw its peshmerga from Nineveh.
"These forces can't be pulled out just because Atheel Nujaifi says so in the media," says Fryad Rwandzi, a Kurdish member of parliament and spokesman for the 58-strong Kurdish bloc in the national parliament. "We, as Kurds, have the authority to defend our people; 172,000 Kurdish people were driven away from Mosul [during Saddam's Arabization period]. [The peshmerga] are to protect the Kurdish people." (Read a TIME story about Kurdistan.)
It can all go very wrong very quickly. Last summer, Iraqi security forces and peshmerga almost came to blows in the disputed area of Khanaqin, in Diyala province, after Iraqi troops tried to enter the mixed town. There are dozens of similarly contested zones in Nineveh. "It would be an ugly fight," says Colonel Brian Vines, the U.S. Army liaison to the Nineveh Operations Command, which oversees the province's local and national police as well as army units. "I think that in some places they're going to have to forcibly move [Kurds] out of these disputed zones."
There are risks besides an all-out confrontation. The fledgling Iraqi security forces could fracture along ethnic or sectarian lines. A Kurdish battalion commander and 200 of his Kurdish soldiers stationed in Nineveh deserted en masse last summer during the Khanaqin standoff, taking their weapons with them into Erbil, says Vines. At the same time, a Kurdish brigade stationed in Diyala refused orders from the central government, according to other sources.
Kurds say al-Maliki has been quietly rotating senior Kurdish officers out of army units stationed in volatile provinces, including Nineveh, and replacing them with Arabs. That's disputed by Major General Hassan Kareem Abbas, the Shi'ite commander of the Nineveh Operations Command. Kurdish officers have been replaced, the general says, but by other Kurds, a view supported privately by senior U.S. officers in Mosul.
The U.S. is increasingly caught in the middle even as it continues its military mission against die-hard insurgents in places like Mosul, mindful of the fast-approaching deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June, ahead of a complete pullout by 2011. "I don't know if I'm a mediator," says Colonel Gary Volesky, brigade commander of the 3rd Heavy Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, stationed in Mosul, adding that his mission was to rout out insurgents. Still, Kurdish leaders, including Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of Kurdistan, have said they want the U.S. to stay not only in the cities, but also in other areas until it helps resolve outstanding Arab-Kurd issues, including territorial disputes. That's unlikely, unless the land rivalry can be resolved in the next two years.
What is clear is that there's a new order in Iraq, an invigorated Arab nationalism that is increasingly pushing back against federalist-minded groups like the country's Kurds. Will the Kurds concede that they may not be in a position to get everything they want, especially regarding territory? Or will they respond militarily? "It's not a simple issue," says Rwandzi, the Kurdish member of parliament. "It's very sensitive and needs to be dealt with seriously." That much at least, Iraq's Arabs and Kurds can agree on.