As the Obama Administration tries to hammer together an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the body count from his disastrous retreat from Iraq is swiftly rising. Last week alone there were fourteen car bombings orchestrated by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, whose goal has always been a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. The bombings, which received only light coverage in a media unwilling to talk about anything that might show their candidate in a bad light, are only one of the fracture points.
A united Iraq died a few days after the withdrawal. The only people who still believe in the fiction of a centrally governed Iraq are holding down desks in the State Department. There are several Iraqs now. There is Iran’s Iraq, the one overseen by Tehran’s puppet in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki. Then there is Iraqi Kurdistan which stands on the verge of declaring its independence, an act that will touch off a violent territorial dispute accompanied by ethnic cleansing.
Iraqi federalism is only popular among some in the Shiite majority, for whom it means majority rule. Maliki’s warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the latter’s subsequent flight and sanctuary in Iraqi Kurdistan has ended the fiction of joint rule in Iraq. The Kurds have branded Maliki a dictator and are swiftly breaking their remaining ties to Baghdad.
President Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan declared that, “Power-sharing and partnership between Kurds, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, and others is now completely non-existent and has become meaningless” and concluded his speech by hinting at an independence referendum, a move almost certain to touch off a violent conflict, particularly in oil rich Kirkuk.
For now it’s a countdown to the inevitable. Barzani has been conducting a diplomatic tour to line up support for the next phase. As has Tariq al-Hashemi. Facing a Shiite majority and Maliki’s consolidation of power, they need all the domestic and international support that they can get. Western troops have left leaving behind a power vacuum that Iran is swiftly filling up.
Obama’s recent meeting with Barzani was typical of the empty discussions that have taken place since the withdrawal. While Obama urged Barzani to work within the Iraqi Constitution, the United States has made some concessions that pave the way for independence, including issuing visas through the US Consulate in Erbil, allowing Kurds to bypass Baghdad. The underlying message is that while the United States does not officially support Kurdish separatism, it is reducing obstacles to its independence.
The United States and the United Kingdom might be gone, but Barzani has managed to find a new ally in an unlikely place, Istanbul. Turkey has turned to Iraqi Kurds to check growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Prime Minister Maliki have exchanged harsh words, with Erdogan criticizing Maliki for sectarian policies and Maliki accusing Turkey of becoming a “hostile state”.
The real showdown isn’t between Baghdad and Istanbul, but between Tehran and Istanbul. Turkey’s ruling Islamists crawled into bed with Iran, but the relationship is turning sour. The flashpoint is Syria, which is Iran’s puppet and which Turkey is doing its best to replace with the rebel Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s hosting of the Friends of Syria conference of countries looking to overthrow the Syrian government and replace it with the Brotherhood, led to Iranian accusations of Zionist collaboration and furious over an Iranian refusal to come to Istanbul, Erdogan accusing it of dishonesty.
Iran’s strategic response has been to move the time wasting talks over its nuclear program to Baghdad, a reminder that it is a step away from controlling Iraq’s oil and gas, which Turkey is dependent on. But Iraq’s largest oil export line runs out of Kirkuk which will be a major target in any Kurdish independence bid. Kirkuk has Iraq’s second largest oil reserves, after Shiite Basra, and has seen ethnic cleansing before. It will see it again.
Baghdad and the Kurds are already fighting over Kirkuk’s oil, with the Kurds pulling the plug on oil exports. Baghdad has tried to intimidate Exxon out of oil exploration in Kurdistan while trying to replace it with the friendlier British Petroleum. BP has close ties to Iran’s oil industry and backdoor connections to Iran’s government, making it a natural choice for Baghdad. BP was originally the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and more trusted in Baghdad and Tehran. But not in Kurdistan.
The first shot in Iraq’s full scale civil war will likely be fired in Kirkuk. Everyone knows it’s coming, the only question is when. Barzani’s pivotal speech indicated that he hoped to solicit support from Shiite militias of the Sadr and Badr Brigades. Muqata Al-Sadr has reciprocated by endorsing Kurdish rights to oil exploration. These gestures however are only temporary. The Kurds have fought the Sadrists before over Kirkuk and will again. The Kurds were ethnically cleansed in favor of Shiite Arabs under Saddam’s divide and conquer program and since the liberation, the Kurds have been steadily pushing out the Arabs. The Sadr and Badr brigades have fought each other and everyone will fight the Kurds over Kirkuk.
Iraq is above all else dysfunctional. Alliances even within ethnic and sectarian groups are momentary and quickly vanish. The Sadrists may be Shiites, but they want to protect their own corrupt fiefdoms, and a strong Maliki federal government threatens that. But that hasn’t stopped Shiite militias from threatening to ethnically cleanse Kurds from Baghdad, while accusing the Kurds of using checkpoints to keep Arabs out of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The stakes in the conflict are not just local, but regional. Under Maliki relations have sharpened with Sunni Gulf states, all of whom have a stake in bringing him down. And that drives funding to Al-Qaeda which is leading the bloody local campaign against the Shiites. The Saudis and Kuwaitis might find a splinter Al-Qaeda Emirate acceptable if it kneecaps a Shiite Iraq and that risks turning Iraq into the next Afghanistan.
America has been counting on the Kurds for stability, but their patience is running out and so is our influence. The Kurds have a limited interest in the sectarian conflicts except as a way of carving out their own state. That is what they wanted all along and they have been patient about it. Their best tactic is dividing Iraq as much possible, pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Shiites against Shiites, Iran against Turkey, until their enemies are too busy fighting each other to stop them.
Together the Shiite Arabs, the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds are bringing down Iraqi federalism and together with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey they are ushering in a full scale civil war.
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