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Iraq. Increasing Tensions Between Kurdistan Authorities and Baghdad Federal Government

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Baghdad/Erbil/Brussels - Iraqi leaders and the U.S. must manage increasing tensions between the Baghdad federal government and Kurdish authorities or face deadly violence following the U.S. troop withdrawal.

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Iraq and the Kurds: Trouble Along the Trigger Line, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that a new and potentially destructive ethnic conflict has arisen between the Iraqi federal and Kurdistan’s regional government. In particular, tensions have been building steadily along a new, undemarcated “trigger line”, a curve stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border, where at multiple places the Iraqi army and Kurdish fighters known as peshmergas are arrayed in opposing formations. Both sides have been manoeuvring to gain political, military and territorial advantage before the U.S. withdrawal.

“To prevent an outbreak of deadly ethnic conflict after it pulls out its forces, Washington should craft an exit strategy that encourages Iraqis to reach a series of bargains on power, resources and territory”, says Joost Hiltermann, Deputy Director of Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “The Obama administration should make sure that the peace it leaves behind is sustainable, lest Bush’s war of choice turn into its own war of necessity”.

The conflict is centred on disputed territories, especially Kirkuk, which hosts a mix of populations, as well as untold reserves of oil and gas. Amid increased tensions and without the U.S. presence, some Iraqis, including Kurdish leaders, could seek outside protection, thus potentially regionalising the conflict.

The U.S. must draw down its forces responsibly, leaving in place a clear arrangement agreed by the federal Iraqi and Kurdistan regional governments. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) should facilitate negotiations between the two parties with muscular U.S. backing.

The ultimate deal, as Crisis Group has consistently argued, should comprise a federal hydrocarbons law, a settlement over Kirkuk and other disputed territories and agreement over the division of powers that jointly would pave the way for consensus on amending the constitution. In the interim, the U.S. and UN should help Baghdad and Erbil to improve their mutual communications and security cooperation in disputed territories and persuade them to refrain from unilateral steps along the trigger line.

“President Obama’s late June decision to appoint Vice President Joseph Biden as his informal special envoy for Iraq and the latter’s subsequent visit to Baghdad point in the right direction”, says Robert Malley, Director of Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program. “The challenge now for Washington is to display determination, persistence and follow-through”.

Source: International Crisis Group, July 8, 2009

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