Fractures in Iraq City as Kurds and Baghdad Vie
MOSUL, Iraq — A new Iraqi military offensive is under way in this still violent northern city, but the worry is not only the insurgents who remain strong here. American commanders are increasingly concerned that Mosul could degenerate into a larger battleground over the fragile Iraqi state itself.
The problems are old but risk spilling out violently here and now. The central government in Baghdad has sent troops to quell the insurgency here, while also aiming at what it sees as a central obstacle to both nationhood and its own power: the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north and the Kurds’ larger ambitions to expand areas under their control.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is squeezing out Kurdish units of the Iraqi Army from Mosul, sending the national police and army from Baghdad and trying to forge alliances with Sunni Arab hard-liners in the province, who have deep-seated feuds with the Kurdistan Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani.
The Kurds are resisting, underscoring yet again the depth of ethnic and sectarian divisions here and the difficulty of creating a united Iraq even when overall violence is down. Tension has risen to the point that last week American commanders held a series of emergency meetings with the Iraqi government and Kurdish officials, seeking to head off violence essentially between factions of the Iraqi government.
“It’s the perfect storm against the old festering background,” warned Brig. Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, who oversees Nineveh and Kirkuk Provinces and the Kurdish region.
Worry is so high that the American military has already settled on a policy that may set a precedent, as the United States slowly withdraws to allow Iraqis to settle their own problems. If the Kurds and Iraqi government forces fight, the American military will “step aside,” General Thomas said, rather than “have United States servicemen get killed trying to play peacemaker.”
The competing agendas of the Kurds and central government have nearly provoked violence before, but each side eventually grasped the risks. That may be the case now. At the moment, the Americans are hoping to refocus each side on fighting the insurgency rather than each other.
But the tensions underline that achieving basic security is only the first step toward deeper progress in Iraq — and that much remains, bitterly, unresolved.
Mosul falls outside the borders of the Kurdish region, but Mr. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party came to control the provincial government after Sunni Arabs boycotted the provincial elections in 2005. The Kurds say, however, that they will not abandon the city until they reclaim five areas in Nineveh Province, putting them on a political collision course with the central government.
Tense personal relations between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Barzani worsened, officials on all sides say, after a standoff in September between the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish security forces, the pesh merga, in eastern Diyala Province. American forces helped contain that confrontation.
More broadly, the two men do not see eye to eye on issues as fundamental as the sharing of oil resources, the resolution of disputed internal borders and the shape of the Iraqi nation. The Kurds want a loose federation, while Mr. Maliki, playing on nationalist sentiments, is increasingly pushing for a strong central government.
Relations have deteriorated to the point that the Kurdish leadership has described Mr. Maliki as a new Saddam Hussein, recalling how Mr. Hussein ruthlessly crushed the Kurds in the 1980s. The borders of Iraqi Kurdistan were established as an internationally enforced security zone in 1991.
In this latest offensive against insurgents, Mr. Maliki has been pushing to lessen Kurdish military influence here, and that is testing loyalties at a delicate time.
Mr. Maliki sent nearly 3,000 national policemen from Baghdad to Mosul to prop up the local force. The officers, almost all Shiites and Sunni Arabs, will be in charge of the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab west side of the city.
Predominantly Kurdish units of the army stationed in Nineveh are slowly being replaced by the mainly Sunni Arab and Shiite contingents.
The Defense Ministry also recently appointed Maj. Gen. Abdullah Abdul-Karim, Mr. Maliki’s brother-in-law, as the new commander of the Second Division on Mosul’s east side. Mr. Barzani, sensing a plot to purge the Iraqi Army in the north of its Kurdish leadership, personally intervened recently to freeze a ministerial order to transfer 34 Kurdish officers, said Col. Hajji Abdullah, a battalion commander in the Second Division.
“If the Arabs do not change now, things will get worse and I see confrontation,” Colonel Abdullah said.
In the turmoil, he and another officer in the division, Brig. Gen. Nadheer Issam, say their loyalties are first and foremost to Kurdistan.