Standoff in Khanaqin

Trouble Brews Between Arabs and Kurds in a Volatile Corner of Iraq

Trouble brewing between Arabs and Kurds emphasizes that Iraq needs political solutions that the U.S. troop presence can't solve, writes Brian Katulis.

A commander in the Iraqi National Police stands in front of a local police station near Khanaqin. (AP/Marko Drobnjakovic)
A commander in the Iraqi National Police stands in front of a local police station near Khanaqin. (AP/Marko Drobnjakovic)

Attention on Iraq these days has been focused on the proposed U.S.-Iraq security agreement and the growing frictions between the central government and independent Sons of Iraq militias supported by the U.S. military. But trouble has been brewing in northern Iraq along the disputed fault lines between Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.

The United States has never really had a substantial military presence in this corner of Iraq because of military strains. Currently the United States has only a few thousand troops in the entire province of Diyala, which, at nearly 7,000 square miles, is larger than the state of Connecticut. Even if the United States had the military capacity, U.S. troops are not likely to get between rival Arab and Kurdish groups in disputes over territory and oil resources. These Arab-Kurdish tensions have no good U.S. military solutions; we need a political solution to many of Iraq’s conflicts.

Arab-Kurdish tensions in the disputed city of Kirkuk, the capital of Tamim province, are well known. Kurds have been fighting for independence since before the invasion, but Iraqi Arabs—both Shia and Sunni—insist that Kirkuk and its extensive oil resources remain under the control of the national government. That city’s status remains unresolved, despite the missed deadline set in Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution to resolve outstanding questions on Kirkuk and other disputed territories by the end of last year, and violence has increased in recent weeks. The central question in these disputed territories is whether the national government or the Kurdistan Regional Government in the northern autonomous region of Iraq will gain control.

Now Khanaqin, another part of the disputed territories near Iraq’s border with Iran (see map), is also demonstrating the limitations of U.S. strategies that are narrowly focused on the U.S. military presence. Many problems in Iraq simply don’t have a U.S. military solution—and Iraqi actors will assert their interests and ultimately resolve their differences on their own terms. International and U.S. diplomacy can facilitate between the different sides, but ultimately Iraqi actors will determine the outcomes.

Khanaqin, like Kirkuk, is a disputed oil-rich territory, and it was also the target of "Arabization" efforts by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Forces from the Iraqi army entered the district earlier this week as part of a broader "Omens of Prosperity" operation aimed at Al Qaeda-affiliated elements in the Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. This operation is the latest in a series of military offensives conducted over the past few years in an attempt to bring stability to the Diyala province.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces, an army under Kurdish authority that operates independently from the Iraqi central government, drew down some their presence earlier this month in parts of Diyala. Some Kurdish leaders expressed anger about the pressure they received from Iraq’s central government to pull out from areas they believed Kurdish forces had sacrificed a great deal to pacify. But it remains unclear how many of the Peshmerga have actually left the area, with reports that some Kurdish forces are refusing to stand down.

Thousands of Khanaqin residents reportedly turned out in large numbers on Tuesday of this week to protest the presence of the central government’s Iraqi security forces in their city. Mayor Mohammed Mullah Hassan criticized the entry of security forces from the Iraqi central government. "Baghdad should exclude Khanaqin from military operations because there is no Al Qaeda in our city," Mullah said. When the Iraqi troops entered the city, Hassan alleged that, "there are political reasons behind the entry of the forces because they entered in the pretext of hunting down gunmen in the region, which is considered one of the most stable regions in Iraq."

In 2006, the members of Khanaqin’s city council demanded that the city be separated from the Diyala province and join the Kurdish autonomous regions, and some Kurds have expressed worries that the "Omens of Prosperity" military operation is focused more on creating facts on the ground in the Arab-Kurdish territorial dispute rather than eradicating threats from terrorist groups. Anwar Hajji Osman, the acting Peshmerga minister in the KRG, sounded an ominous tone, stating, "The Iraqi army is not in a position to confront the Peshmerga forces—Peshmerga forces are far and away stronger than the Iraqi army."

The Kurdish Globe reported that the Iraqi security forces withdrew from Khanaqin after the protests on Tuesday, but it remains unclear what the current status is. The issue has entered the realm of Iraqi national politics, with Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi calling on the KRG president to join in an urgent meeting to discuss the deployment of the Iraqi army in Khanaqin. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told U.S. officials that he was surprised by the Iraqi troop presence in Diyala, saying, "It is surprising that the Iraqi army is trying to send forces to this area on the pretext of fighting terrorism and that they have not tried to coordinate with the Kurdistan Regional Government."

What does this mean for U.S. policy in Iraq? First, it serves as a reminder that there are clearly no good military solutions to these political problems. There’s not much that U.S. ground troop presence can do in the overall Diyala province—so dealing with a potential flashpoint like Khanaqin requires alternative mechanisms.

Second, the problems of the disputed territories like Khanaqin and Kirkuk demonstrate the importance of having a brokered power-sharing agreement between Iraq’s competing factions. The United Nations is poised to offer a broad set of recommendations on resolving the status of Kirkuk and disputed territories later this year. It is unclear whether the UN proposals will garner support from all of the factions, but the United Nations is playing a vital role in trying to bridge these divides.

The problems in Kirkuk and the disputed territories, and international mediators’ attempts to bridge political divisions, offer hints of what’s to come in other parts of Iraq. Iraq’s political transition is largely stalled and deadlocked over core questions directly tied to issues of identity and power, so the United States will need to shift its focus beyond military efforts and security sector support and look to help Iraqis achieve creative power-sharing solutions.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow