What Is The U.S. Role In Iraqi Arab-Kurd Peacemaking?

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it uncorked an unpredictable bottle of internal disputes and conflicts. But one of the easiest conflicts to predict was the long-running conflict between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds for control of disputed territories in northern Iraq. This conflict was largely stabilized between the First Gulf War in 1991 and the invasion, when U.S. warplanes patrolled a no-fly zone to prevent Saddam Hussein from sending his army against the Kurds again.

With the removal of Saddam, the Kurds were eager to expand their control over territories from which they had been expelled in the course of the previous regime’s “Arabization” program. The status of these territories was addressed in the Iraqi constitution, whose Article 140 called for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk and other territories by the end of 2007. Thanks to a combination of Arab opposition and Iraqi government incapacity, this referendum did not occur. Despite the formation of a committee to create a power sharing formula for Tamim Province (where Kirkuk is located), little progress has been made on the issue.

Now, Kurdish leaders are reporting that relations with the central government in Baghdad have reached a nadir. Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have not spoken to each other directly for an entire year. This lack of communication is compounded by a series stand-offs between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army, going back to the August 2008 confrontation in the Diyala province town of Khanaqin. Most recently, Kurdish and central government forces stood off on June 28 in the town of Makhmur, between the contested cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. In addition to territorial disputes, the KRG and the central government remain in conflict over hydrocarbons legislation and a new KRG constitution. Despite the hard work of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the KRG and the Maliki government appear headed for conflict.

What this amounts to, as Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch, and I argued in our September 2008 report Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge (pdf), is that the surge of U.S. forces that helped reduce violence did not fundamentally deliver on its central objective of political consolidation. Indeed, by strengthening the Iraqi government, it has probably exacerbated the Arab-Kurd dispute.


Tom Friedman yesterday advocated a sort of special envoy for Iraq a la Richard Holbrooke’s work in Bosnia. He’s six years too late –- and so is the United States. With Iraqi demands for sovereignty only growing, it will be difficult to get the Iraqi government to sign on to yet more U.S. intervention in its internal disputes. Indeed, Maliki told Vice President Joe Biden during his July 4 visit to Baghdad that “the reconciliation issue is a purely Iraqi issue and any non-Iraqi involvement might have a negative effect.”

The United States had ample time to resolve the Arab-Kurd dispute non-violently when it had far more power and leverage over Iraqi actors over the past six years. It squandered the opportunities it had, and is now faced with the potential of renewed conflict as it exits Iraq. Appointing an unwelcome special envoy to work in an undetermined relationship with the new U.S. ambassador is probably not the best way to use the influence we have left to help resolve Iraqi conflicts.