These days the embers of ethnic conflict are being fanned to draw the air away from the flames of sectarian conflict: some in Baghdad and in Washington believe that setting Arabs against Kurds will bring Sunnis and Shias closer together.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is looking far into the future, trying to figure out how he can remain at his post beyond the forthcoming parliamentary elections (to be held in December or next March, depending on whom one asks) while expanding his powers. To wield more power, Maliki needs to do away with the cumbersome coalitions that were cobbled together from the various parliamentary blocs, and whose very presence at the table serves as a check on the excesses of executive power. He would like to streamline his path to a parliamentary majority by allying with the nascent Sunni political force, the neo-Ba’athists who are being rallied together by Sunni parliamentarian Saleh al-Mutlag.
But the Maliki-Mutlag alliance has a price tag: Mutlag needs to sell this alliance to his constituency, wary as it is of the Shia in power, especially with an emerging strongman like Maliki at the top. To do that, Maliki must champion some of the issues that animate the Sunni public.
Maliki tried to do that by hinting that he would reintegrate the former top echelons of the Ba’athists (many of whom are Sunnis), even those who had served Saddam, back into the government. This was a stupid move on two counts: the Shia public met these hints with an uproar of condemnation, instigated in no small way by Maliki’s Shia rivals. Maliki had to back down, reassuring his base that rehabilitating the Ba’ath Party was prohibited by the constitution and that he is committed to that. Counterintuitively, Mutlag himself was uncomfortable with bringing back some of the Ba’athist big guns, because if that were to happen, then there would be no need, and no room, for him at the forefront of his own political movement. Mutlag’s relative unimportance during the Ba’athist years was exactly what allowed him to rise to the top in the post-Saddam era, as the important Ba’athists were barred from participating in politics. Bringing them back would relegate him to the benches.
So Maliki has found another avenue of common ground with Mutlag: hating on the Kurds. Maliki gains from this arrangement because the Kurds are traditionally allied to the Hakim family, Maliki’s most dangerous Shia rivals. Whereas Mutlag gains because there is much disputed territory among Sunnis and Kurds—in oil-rich Kirkuk, in symbolic Mosul, and in strategically-placed Diyala— his Sunni audience is already primed to respond positively to an anti-Kurdish alliance. This is evidenced by the provincial election results from Iraq’s most populous Sunni province, Mosul (Nineveh) where the winning local list ran on a blatantly anti-Kurd agenda.
Maliki also gets the added benefit of salving the wounded pride of the Iraqi Army’s officer corps, many of whom had fought the Kurds in the Saddam years and who take umbrage at the autonomy of the Kurdish military battalions, the peshmerga.
To sweeten the deal, the Americans also seem to have soured on the Kurds, despite the latter’s extensive stateside lobbying efforts. There is a palpable and inexplicable anti-Kurdish vibe in Washington and at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, inexplicable mainly because the Kurds seem to be America’s loudest cheerleaders in the country. But through an accident of having the wrong bureaucrats at the wrong time, coupled with a drive to placate the Sunnis at all costs, American policy now finds itself at odds with Kurdish aspirations, especially when it comes to the dispute over Kirkuk.
Until recently, the point person on Kirkuk was Ambassador Thomas Krajeski. In the years before the war, he was assigned to work on the Iraqi opposition, mainly to stymie its efforts. But for some reason, probably a matter of personal predilection, Krajeski came to be viewed during those years as someone who was hostile towards Kurds. It reached a point that some of the Kurds started the (groundless) rumor that his surname meant “chicken thief” in Polish, and it stuck as a nickname when opposition figures would bring him up.
The other character working on Kirkuk is Emma Sky, a British citizen who in the past used to agitate against American and Zionist “imperialism” and who now serves as the political advisor to General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. Sky has developed an unfortunate case of “clientitis” involving the chieftains of the principal Arab tribe in Kirkuk’s vicinity, the ‘Ubaid, who flatter her with platitudes about her magnificent role in history, which consequently drives the garrulous Sky to see things their way; which is to say, the Kurds are the aggressors, even though many of the ‘Ubaid chiefs hunted down the Kurds in the Saddam years, much like how the Ukrainian auxiliaries massacred Jews on behalf of the Waffen SS.
Hence for the past year or so, most of the cables coming into Washington regarding Kirkuk have been colored by the personal biases of Coalition bureaucrats and advisors on the ground, generally trending towards being dismissive of the Kurdish talking points.
Kirkuk is saddled with very difficult issues involving many interested parties. The critical urgency for tackling these issues—energy, demographics, a history of ethnic cleansing—is now being impeded by political expediency: the Arab-Kurdish disputes are being played up, because ganging up on the Kurds would bring the Sunnis and the Shias together, or so think the likes of Maliki, Mutlag and Sky.
Unfortunately, all these machinations miss a fundamental mathematical reality in today’s Iraq: no one will be able to form a cabinet that passes the parliamentary threshold if the Kurds do not play along. Maliki may get the plurality or even majority of the Shia vote, and so would Mutlag on the Sunni side, but it still—even in the best case scenarios for the both of them—would not add up to a voting majority. There would be enough anti-Maliki Shias and anti-Mutlag Sunnis in parliament who would turn around and ally themselves with the Kurdish bloc, one whose numbers and discipline is unlikely to change in the next election. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if Mutlag too joins this alliance, known as he is for opportunism and pragmatism, leaving Maliki in the cold.
General Odierno has just dispatched U.S. soldiers to embed with the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Police and the peshmerga in Kirkuk to avert a military confrontation, one that is being egged on by Maliki and Odierno’s own advisors. In recent days, the Kurds have been saying all the right things to diffuse the situation, but Maliki does not seem interested in a settlement.