Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The issue of Kirkuk

Many in this divided city want U.S. troops to stay longer than President Barack Obama's administration has said they will, and a tense standoff last week showed why. Kurdish troops from the north were in positions on the outskirts of Arab neighborhoods.
To calm the latest flare-up of the longstanding ethnic rivalries here has required a rush of high-level diplomacy, including phone calls from Vice President Joe Biden to Kurdish leaders and the deployment of U.S. troops, a rarity in Iraq today.

That's the opening to Tim Arango's "Clashes Fuel Debate Over U.S. Plan to Leave Iraq" (New York Times or here for MIT's The Tech). Oil-rich Kirkuk, sought after by the KRG and the government or 'government' in Baghdad. A story of grievances of who was forced out most, who suffered the worst, who can claim it. In 2005, a method for resolving the issue was decided upon and written into the Iraqi Constitution. By 2007, a census would be taken followed by a referendum on the issue. The Constitution went into effect in the second half of 2005, Iraq held elections in December 2005. In April 2006, Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister-designate and, in May 2006, prime minister.

Who dropped the ball?

That would be Nouri. Despite being bound by the Constitution, despite then agreeing to the White House benchmarks (which included the resolution of Kirkuk) in 2007, Nouri's never followed through as he was required to do. As late as November, it appeared the census would finally take place. Sure, Nouri had postponed it plenty of times. But it was set for early December and it needed to take place. And Nouri was full of promises to the Kurds of how it would take place. Then he became prime minister designate and, although he couldn't come up with a full Cabinet, he could and did immediately call off the census.

Kirkuk is an issue for Iraqis because, once decided, it will be a sore spot for decades, possibly longer. It is their country and, for those who don't give a damn about that, you really don't decades of hate towards the US because they awarded Kirkuk to one side or the other. By not ensuring that Nouri followed the Constitution, the US has made the decision: Kirkuk belongs to Baghdad. If that doesn't change real damn quick, the US takes the fall for the decision.

The US government has repeatedly supported Nouri and backed him up. They've kept US forces on the ground to ensure he remains in power. To allow him to repeatedly ignore the Constitution is making a decision. By default, the US government is making a decision.

And it's a real damn shame that so few have paid attention to the issue. And a real damn shame John Kerry's become such a joke that he'd support a nominee for US Ambassador (Chris Hill) who clearly didn't grasp the issues in his confirmation hearing despite bragging about the intense tutorial he'd received. Kirkuk was minor, Hill insisted, nothing but a minor land dispute. And it all just sailed over John Kerry's head. And whatever the US had diplomatically accomplished under Ryan Croker fell by the wayside. John Kerry wants to be Secretary of State but he wasn't ready to be Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The International Crisis Group has released a new report entitled [PDF format warning] "Iraq and the Kurds: Confronting Withdrawal Fears" and this is from their executive summary on the report (we'll note the report in today's snapshot):

In late February, the Kurdistan regional government sent military forces into Kirkuk in a transparent attempt to both deflect attention from events in Suleimaniya and rally the Kurdish population around the supremely emotive issue of Kir­kuk’s status. In doing so, it dangerously inflamed an already tense situation and exacerbated ethnic tensions. This should serve as a reminder of the need for leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to urgently attend to the structural Arab-Kurd fault line.

In joining the coalition government, Kurdish leaders presented conditions on power-sharing and outstanding claims over resources and territory. Maliki says he agreed to most, but to the Kurds the ultimate proof lies in whether and how he fulfils them. It is doubtful that the prime minister can or even would want to satisfy their every demand, and both sides will need to show flexibility in hammering out the required deals – notably on completing government formation, hydrocarbons and revenue-sharing legislation and the delineation of the Kurdistan region’s internal boundaries.

In the past, Crisis Group has argued that Kirkuk should gain special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period, with a mechanism for ultimately resolving its status, and with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly. A deal along these lines appears within reach, and now is the time to pursue it. In January, building on their success in forming the coalition government, Baghdad and Erbil negotiated a tactical agreement on oil exports from the Kurdistan region whose implementation should prove beneficial to both. They ought to take this a step further by starting talks on the range of issues that have plagued their post-2003 relationship.

In June 2009, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) set up a high-level task force whose stated goal was to work toward a negotiated solution – initially through confidence-building mechanisms – for the disputed territories, the broad swathe of land from the Syrian to the Iranian border that Kurds claim as historically part of Kurdistan. UNAMI realised full well, however, that the task force was unlikely to make progress in the months leading up to and following legislative elections, so its real objective was to keep the parties at the table until a new government was formed. This period, which lasted a year and a half, has now come to an end; today, the initiative should be invested with new life.

At the core of the territorial dispute lies the disposition of Kirkuk, the name for three separate but overlapping entities – city, governorate and super-giant oil field – that are subject to competing claims. The 2005 constitution lays out a process for resolving the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, but it has run aground on profound differences over interpretation and lack of political will. Meanwhile, the situation in the disputed territories has been left to fester. In areas with a rich ethnic mix, such as Kirkuk city and several districts of Ninewa governorate, this has produced strong tensions and politically-motivated provocations aimed at sparking inter-communal conflict.

To prevent small incidents from escalating into a broader conflagration, the U.S. military in 2009 established so-called combined security mechanisms along the trigger line – the line of control between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional guard force, known as the peshmergas, that runs along the disputed region’s spine. The mechanisms’ key features are joint checkpoints and patrols involving army and guard force personnel with embedded U.S. officers, as well as coordination centres designed to improve communication and build trust between the two sides. Moreover, Baghdad and Erbil agreed to a set of rules governing the deployment of their respective security forces in these areas.

Together, these steps have reduced tensions, but the security forces’ presence and posture in their designated sectors remind a weary population the conflict is far from resolved. The standoff between the army and the peshmergas in Kirkuk’s environs, in particular, and provocative conduct of the Kurdish security police, the asaesh, inside the city augur trouble for the period after U.S. withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011. Events in late February-early March, when peshmerga forces deployed around Kirkuk city over the vehement protestations of local Arab and Turkoman leaders, were another warning that the security situation, relatively stable since 2003, may not hold.

The combined security mechanisms were intended to buy time for negotiations over the disputed territories’ status. So far, measures fashioned to break the deadlock, such as a process to organise provincial elections in Kirkuk, have reinforced it, increasing frustration and mutual recrimination. The impact has not been limited to the immediate area: a nationwide census has been postponed indefinitely because of disagreements over its application in the disputed territories. Without progress, conflict threatens to erupt as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq, including positions along the trigger line. This causes anxiety all around, especially among Kirkuk residents, who appear unanimous in calling for continued U.S. military protection.

There are no easy fixes. Although Maliki’s government might seek to negotiate a troop extension, the likelier scenario is that the U.S. troop presence in the north will be severely curtailed if not ended within a few months. UNAMI has begun to explore Baghdad’s and Erbil’s readiness to re-engage on core issues, but delays in filling key government posts, such as the defence and interior ministers, militate against an early resumption of talks.

The U.S. takes the position that its forces are leaving, so Iraqis will have to sort out problems along the trigger line without the psychological security blanket its military presence has provided. It also appears to believe the impending departure itself might concentrate Iraqi minds and produce political will to agree on the disposition of Kirkuk and other territories. That could be a logical wager, but it also is a risky one. At a minimum, the U.S. should provide strong diplomatic and financial support to UNAMI as it prepares for talks, including by making continued military aid conditional on stakeholders’ constructive participation in negotiations and commitment to refrain from unilateral military moves.

The following community sites updated last night and this morning:

Bonnie reminds that Isaiah's The World Today Just Nuts "From His Previously Undisclosed Location" went up yesterday morning. And, surprise, Isaiah has a comic that goes up after the next entry this morning. We'll close with this from Sherwood Ross' "U.S. SETS UP SPECIAL PRISONS FOR MUSLIM/ARAB INMATES" (CounterCurrents):

If you think the U.S. Bureau of Prisons(BOP) couldn't possibly make its prisons more inhumane no matter how hard it tried, you are wrong. It has created CMUs, or Communications Management Units, where the “management” part consists of denying inmates virtually all communication with their families and the outside world. In its Terre Haute, Ind., facility, the BOP is concentrating Arab/Muslim inmates and limiting them to mailing one six-page letter per week, making one 15-minute phone call per month, and receiving only one 60-minute visit per month.
Word of the restrictive new facilities came to light when Rafil Dhafir, an American doctor born in Iraq (and convicted of sending money to a charity he founded there and other non-violent crimes,) claimed he was imprisoned in Terre Haute as part of “a nationwide operation to put Muslims/Arabs in one place so that we can be closely monitored regarding our communications.” Subsequent inquiries showed that Dhafir had a case. While Muslims make up just six percent of the federal prison population, 18 of 33 prisoners at Terre Haute, or 55%, are Muslim, and 23 of 36, or 64%, at Marion, Ill., are Muslim.
BOP's actions have been challenged legally by the Center for Constitutional Rights(CCR) which, The Nation magazine reports in its March 28th issue, contends inmates are being shifted to these facilities “based on their religion and/or perceived political beliefs.” Author Alia Malek writes, “The extreme nature of the (BOP's) restrictions also raises the issue of cruel and unusual punishment,” forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. CCR also says the CMUs impede the free speech and association rights of family members. The BOP insists that these inmates must communicate in English, another punitive barrier, and it now denies them any physical contact with their families. Thus, prisoners cannot kiss their wives or children and can only talk with them in a crabbed room through a Plexiglass wall using a tapped telephone that records their conversations.
Prisoners in the two CMUs are not being punished because of any terrorist acts. “The vast majority of these folks are there due to entrapment or material support convictions,” says CCR attorney Rachel Meeropol, who has communicated with most of them. These are “terrorism-related convictions that do not involve any violence or injury.” One example, Malek writes, is Yassin Aref, who simply witnessed a loan in a plot “planned by an FBI informant.” Other examples include officers of the Holy Land Foundation(HLF), a U.S.-based Islamic charity that sent funds to programs administered by Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Ghassan Elashi, co-founder of HLF, is behind bars for funding schools and social welfare programs in the Occupied Territories.

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thomas friedman is a great man

oh boy it never ends