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Kurds caught in the middle as tensions in Iraq are stoked by regional jockeying

With the political crisis in Iraq already at a critical juncture, domestic and regional events this week served to intensify tensions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki formally suspended a number of ministers from the predominantly Sunni-based al-Iraqiya list after weeks of boycotts. As internal parties continued frantic jockeying to soothe friction and find a way forward, fierce rhetoric from rival factions only further highlighted the prevalent fractured landscape and a strong sense of animosity.

Over the past weeks, with realization of the great perils that the current sectarian stand-off threatens to unearth, regional neighbours particularly Turkey have been getting overly anxious.

The reality of Iraq”s diverse socio-ethnic mosaic and its fractured foundations is hardly new, the threats and problems that exist today have not developed overnight and have existed for decades were they only become more magnified after 2003.

However, the ever evolving Middle Eastern struggle for influence and supremacy has left the likes of Turkey on the edge. Turkey realizes that with the highly-volatile and sensitive Middle Eastern climate, it can either wait on the side and become consumed by the end products that ensue or actively try and influence the current tides for its ultimate benefit.

Iraq has often been a playground for regional powers and the current predicament is only a by-product of this. The current standoff that began with the arrest warrant of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the resulting acrimonious fallout has as much of a regional footing as a local one.

The Arab Spring which is still ongoing in Syria has set a new benchmark in the Middle East and along with it a lot of political, sectarian and strategic wavering.

Add the US withdrawal in Iraq, Turkey”s frosty relations with Israel and its continuing struggle with the PKK, a new round of sanctions to punish Iran”s growing nuclear clout, Iran”s increasing faceoff with the Sunni Arab Gulf states and one can see that the Middle East is a deep interconnected web of ties and proxy battles.

Turkey has acknowledged and highlighted the dangers of Iraqi fragmentation before any other side due to sensitivities with the preservation of their own borders, but they have become more vociferous in recent weeks amidst what they deem as a Shiite grasp of power aided by an increasingly isolated Iranian regime. Tehran”s relations with Ankara have certainly cooled and Iran has used its immense leverage on Iraq and Syria to show that it still has plenty of strings to pull.

Iraq”s continuous solidarity with Syria is a byproduct of Iranian influence and is a stark contrast to the Turkish stance on Bashar al-Assad”s waning regime.

Tensions between Baghdad and Ankara were deepened when the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq”s ambassador to Turkey, Abdulemir Kamil Abi-Tabikh, to its headquarters in Ankara to express their anger at al-Maliki growing hard-line statements and criticism towards Turkey. This was just a day after Baghdad had done the same to show their displeasure at what they saw as Turkish interference.

The attacks on the Turkish embassy in Baghdad are only likely to stoke sentiments further.

The Kurds are not a party to the sectarian battle in Iraq but nevertheless become ubiquitously sucked into the standoff. The Kurds were often looked at by Turkey as an instigator of a future breakup but Turkey has to soon come to terms that an Iraqi split will not be on a part of the Kurds and plan for the eventuality that sooner or later that they will need to embrace an independent Kurdistan.

Turkey is already relying heavily on the Kurds to maintain equilibrium and leverage in Iraq. The shift towards sectarianism by Baghdad is evident in the eyes of Ankara who perceive the dilution of Sunni power in parliament and controversy around al-Hashemi as testimony to this view.

While Turkey has warned that current political antics risk the break-up of Iraq, ironically al-Maliki has in turn warned that “Turkey is playing a role that might bring disaster and civil war to the region and will suffer because it has different sects and ethnicities.”

No doubt the growing prominence of the Kurds in Iraq and ongoing disgruntled noises of millions of Kurds in south eastern Turkey is keeping Turkey restless at night. Not to mention that Turkey may end up a passive player in the shape of proceedings in spite of all its efforts as changes unravel around it.

As we have seen with the Arab Spring, it doesn”t take much to create a political avalanche that can bring more change in mere weeks than decades prior.

Turkish warnings over the current state of regional meddling in Iraq may speak true but are certainly contradictory. The same regional influence that they fear that Iraqi blocs will fall under has been raging for over 8 years and Turkey has been a key component of this.

Although, many had hoped that al-Hashemi would be giving a fair trial with a legal rather than a political underpinning and that the tensions could be cooled by an all-inclusive national conference, the suspension of al-Iraqiya MP”s placed further cloud on the prospects of near-term compromise and concord.

Al-Iraqiya leader, Ayad Allawi warned this week that Iraq needs a new prime minister or new elections to prevent the country from falling apart. Both these demands may not come anytime soon. Al-Maliki still enjoys fair amount of support in Baghdad and crucially still has Kurdish backing.

The key task for the Kurdistan leadership is play their cards wisely but also do what is the interests of Kurdistan and not simply aid political jockeying in Baghdad. The Kurds could well pull the rug under the feet of al-Maliki and after this week”s turn of events, Ankara will be siding and pressurizing the Kurds closely to contain al-Maliki.

As the KDP resumes the premiership with the imminent return of Nechirvan Barzani to spearhead the next Kurdistan government, the Kurdistan Region finds itself at a crucial but highly delicate juncture. What dice the Kurds roll and what cards they play could echo for many more years. As Kurds realized to their detriment for decades after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, missing historical opportunities can set-back a nation many more years.

If their yearly ploys to glue Iraq together bear only counterproductive fruit for the Kurdish people, then the serious question must be asked of the Kurdish leadership. If Iraq continuously deploys policies that are counter to the principles of voluntary union and national harmony, then the Kurds must formally declare their independence.

The situation in Iraq after 8 years of fierce pushing, hand holding and direct support from Washington didn”t bring much joy, and it is unlikely that the current situation in Iraq can be magically transformed.

Deep rooted problems need deep rooted solutions. The simple reality is that as a majority and with significant backing of Tehran, the Shiites are not about to relinquish power in Baghdad anytime soon. The Sunni will continue to feel marginalized unless they can win some form of autonomy or real decision making posts in Baghdad which as witnessed under the State of Law coalition, will not be easily ceded.

As part of the current coalition underpinned by the Erbil agreement, al-Iraqiya was to be afforded executive decision making posts which never materialized. Al-Iraqiya discontent was already at tipping point long before the al-Hashemi debacle.

It is the political environment that often makes a leader and thus even if al-Maliki was replaced, it is not certain that significant outcomes can be achieved. Furthermore, new elections will only result in another de-facto national census, with no clear winner due to the factional split and thus the same arduous process of coalition building.

The regional turmoil itself is only just brewing. If Iran carries out its threat to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz then it places regional governments into a tougher corner. Iraq itself could find itself in a precarious position against its allies, as the closing of the Gulf passage would cripple the Iraqi economy. Meanwhile, Turkey is unlikely to heed al-Maliki”s warnings not to interfere when they have so much at stake.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.