With a language of confrontation, the writing for conflict is always on the wall.
With tension over the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command already at boiling point, the writing for open confrontation was always on the wall. Violent skirmishes between Peshmerga forces and Dijla forces in Tuz Kkurmatu, resulting in two casualties and many wounded, could be the tip of the ice-berg in what may embroil into serious conflict between Kurds and Arabs if sentiments do not dramatically change.
Any escalation in conflict has the potential to drastically alter the face of Iraq and indeed the entire region. Kurdish and Arab forces have come close to blows in the past, but the establishment of the Dijla forces was an open intent to ruffle Kurdish feathers and use military might to achieve goals.
The Dijla forces which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki setup in September after promising he would not go ahead with the move, illustrate alarming boldness and arrogance by Maliki as he seeks to solidify his growing grip on power.
The escalation in the disputed territories and the rapidly deteriorating relations between Erbil and Baghdad comes as no surprise. Maliki has been consistently interested in preserving his sphere of power, has successfully consolidated a number of powerful roles under his helm and has affectively manipulated political actors and played on sectarian emotions when backed against a corner. If in moments of weakness he can prevail, then Maliki’s capabilities and confidence at times of strength have little bounds.
Weeks after a cross-party Kurdish delegation returned from Baghdad in what many deemed as a “final attempt” at resolving the crisis between Kurdistan and Baghdad, relations have plummeted to new lows.
The Kurdish delegation promised a united stand should negotiations prove unsuccessful and it is time for Kurdish political forces to show solidary and a clear plan of action as Kurdish interests are threatened more than ever.
Only in April of this year, a vote of no-confidence on Maliki failed in spite of cross-party support in Baghdad, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani playing a big part in thwarting the measures to remove al-Maliki. How a betrayed Talabani, who received promises from Maliki about new national dialogue and a halt to Dijla forces, must now regret that.
The reason for the Dijla Operations Command was supposedly to address “poor” security coordination in the areas that had witness violent attacks. But as always with Maliki, timing of the moves and initiatives is the clue to real intent.
There have been terrorist attacks in the northern disputed belt for years, with residents long complaining about a lack of government protection. For the large part, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces had been relied on to affectively protect disputed areas as Iraqi national forces were bogged down in a fierce sectarian civil war further south for a number of years.
None of the Dijla commanders had been appointed by the council of representatives and most of the leaders have allegiance to Maliki. In fact the majority of the military commanders across the Iraqi army are carefully hand-picked by Maliki, making them increasingly a sectarian and not a national force.
Coordination was already a common feature under years of American mediation with the setup of join patrols and commands between Peshmerga and the Iraqi army. Kirkuk province’s Kurdish governor Najimaldin Omar Karim refused to cooperate with the new command and tensions have been brewing slowly towards open confrontation. Lt. Jamal Tahir, the chief of police in Kirkuk, refused to take orders from the command and warned about any Dijla meddling in Kirkuk.
It is no confidence that new measures by Baghdad have come as relations between Baghdad and Erbil have dramatically declined, with internal disputes and a difference in regional strategy widening all the time as Kurds have moved closer to Turkey, reaffirmed their anti-Assad stance and have grown ever more independent with new energy deals.
The new manoeuvres in the disputed territories are political and have little to do with provision of security. Maliki’s increasing sabre-rattling is designed to dilute Kurdish power, undermine Kurdish security forces and strengthen Baghdad’s hand in the jostle for control of disputed territories.
Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani had stated in recent remarks, “the formation of the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command in Kirkuk and Diyala is an unconstitutional step by the Iraqi government,” whilst warning that “the intentions, aims, formation and actions of this command centre are against the Kurdish people, the political process, co- existence and the process of normalising the situation in the disputed areas.”
The years of delays in the implementation of Article 140 and constitutional articles was already clear gauge of Baghdad’s appetite to conform to democratic principles that go against their interests. This latest move is nothing but further measures to hinder a clear resolution of disputed territories and to derail Kurdistan’s growing economic and political strength.
Barzani said in a recent statement “I want to reassure the people of Iraq, and especially the people of Kurdistan, that after consultation with the Iraqi President and other concerned parties, we will make our position clear and take appropriate steps against this unconstitutional action and any actions designed to impose unconstitutional arrangements in the disputed areas”. The PUK leadership had also warned that the Kurds would resort to other means if Maliki did not rectify and backtrack from his “mistakes”.
Warnings by the Kurdish leadership are not new and the desire to adopt patience must surely be running thin. It is also signifies the importance of Kurdish solidarity and a united stand to protect Kurdish interests. Lack of Kurdish unity in disputed territories and particularly Baghdad over the past several months has already harmed Kurdish goals.
The move led by Barzani to oust Maliki under his growing abuse of power was wrongly seen as “personal” in some circles with Maliki’s track record over the past number of years telling its own story.
When backed into a corner or on the negotiation table Maliki and the State of Law Coalition make all the right overtures and gestures. But almost a decade under the new Iraq, Kurds have to finally realise that promises are not worth the paper they are written on in Baghdad.
The Kurdish security forces had warned that they will respond harshly and this was met with Maliki’s own stern warnings for the Peshermrga forces not to provoke Iraqi forces. Maliki had ominously insisted in the past that “there are no restrictions on the movements of the Iraqi army, which according to the constitution is a federal army and has right to be present in Basra or Zakho. And no one has the right to prevent that.”
As Maliki came under renewed pressure over the Dijla Operations Command, he boldly added the Salahaddin province under its command.
The growing rhetoric from Maliki, the likes of Yassin Majeed and other Shiite leaders and new assertiveness that their powerbase stretches to all corners of Iraq is an open threat of war.
In a sign of growing hostility towards the principle of the Kurds as the sole guardians of Kurdistan, Abdul Salam al-Maliki, an MP from the State of Law bloc, urged the Iraqi Prime Minister to open a “North Operations Command” to “protect” Kurdistan Region, under the pretext that the Peshmerga are unable to secure the province.
It is ironic that the Peshmerga who receive no funding or support from Baghdad or a share of weapons purchases are been advised of their lack of strength. Peshmerga had the capability to repel the might of Saddam and are capable of securing Kurdistan both now and the future.