Isn't it amazing how quickly Iraq has slipped down the list of defining issues for the presidential election, after every pundit in the country originally opining that it would be the defining argument to be fought? Of course, since those pronouncements we've had Georgia and the progressively chillier disagreement with Russia, we've had Afghanistan and especially Pakistan go to hell in a handbasket and we've had the economy do an impression of Chernobyl. Oh, and the Witchfinder from Alaska.
But there are still stormclouds on the Iraqi horizon, no matter that the Right wants to declare a whole new Mission Accomplished banner day. The Sunni Awakening is getting restless, the Shiite majority still have nasty internal feuds to resolve and the Kurds...well, Bush's bestest Iraqi allies throughout the occupation still have a damn good chance of being the spark that sets off a regional powderkeg. The Turks have already come very close to getting embroilled in an Iraqi mess when they sent a large force across the border last winter against Kurdish PKK separatist terrorists and are already set to do it again. The danger was always that the Kurds' military, the peshmerga, would turn out to resist the incursion and drag the Iraqi central government in too leaving the US torn between ripping up either the NATO alliance or years of Iraqi occupation.
So it was interesting recently to see an interview with Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy aide to Turkey's prime minister, on the Council For Foreign Relations' website a few days ago. He warned that recent optimism on Iraq in the United States overlooks significant, dangerous problems which remain unresolved and set out a viewpoint that says Iraq should be seen as a Yugoslavia on the verge of breakdown.
There is Shiite, there is Sunni, there is Kurd, there is Turkoman. ... Iraq's constitution again and again refers to Shiites, refers to Sunnis, to Arabs, Kurds, and it creates its own dilemma. Having rights, I mean cultural rights, ethnic rights, but trying to establish an order based on these ethnicities, based on these identities and other differences. So, Yugoslavia has collapsed, but without getting any lesson from Yugoslavia we are trying to create another Yugoslavia in the Middle East. The Lebanese, because of this political structure, had a twenty-year civil war. But Iraq became another Lebanon because of ethnic and sectarian definitions.
Where is, for example, the most alarming indication of this is in Kirkuk. Iraq is a small [microcosm of the] Middle East. You have all the ethnicities of the Middle East in Iraq. And Kirkuk is a small Iraq.
Kirkuk, he says, is "like creating a bomb and giving it to the people."
Of course, you couldn't have prevented the break up of Yugoslavia just by carefully keeping any mentions of ethnic divisions out of official documents, and that's highly unlikely to work in Iraq either. Tito managed it by being a charismatic, ruthless strongman, a real-life heroic leader against an evil occupation and playing strongly to nationalism he continually worked to define. And without him, it broke apart in short order. I just don't see any kind of Tito figure in Iraq at present.
And the Kurds keep pushing the central government. After a recent confrontation between peshmerga and the Iraqi Army which ended just short of actual shooting at a small disputed town Northwest of Baghdad last month, there was no conciliatory mood.
"The current problem is over borders, because they [the Iraqi government] believe the borders of Kurdistan should be where the former ousted regime [of President Saddam Hussein] decided on," said Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, in a meeting with Kurdish journalists on Sep. 28.
"From now on, if Iraq sends its forces to somewhere in disputed areas, then we will dispatch our forces to the same spot as well. If they send one brigade, we will send two," Barzani said.
His remarks raised the current tensions to a new level, signaling that Kurds will not shy away from fighting the army of the very government whose president is Kurdish, as well as some key ministers.
Last month, Sheikh Homam al-Hamudi, a Shia Arab who heads the Iraqi Parliament's foreign relations committee, warned Kurds on behalf of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that "any [Kurdish] Peshmarga who violates the blue line will be chased out by the [Iraqi] security forces."
The blue line refers to the official border between areas under Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) jurisdiction and the rest of Iraq. KRG runs the three northern provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk and has no official jurisdiction over Khanaqin, Kirkuk and Nineveh province, home to the city of Mosul.
So now the Kurds are looking at the possibility of a civil war with the Iraqi government and a cross-border war with their massive neighbour to the North, both in search of their own independent homeland. In either case, the US gets to play piggy in the middle, damned whichever side it takes.
One alternative that has been mooted in the past was a soft partition, peaceably rather than through war and under a "federal" disguise, which might give everyone enough of what they wanted that no-one would start shooting. Joe Biden has been a major proponent of that plan but it only has two major problems - back when the US could have imposed it by fiat it would have led to civil war (whoever breaks up Iraq will have the Sunnis who were used to ruling it all under Saddam clamoring for their blood) and now there's no way that Maliki, believing himself a strongman, will allow it to happen.
Maliki, though, isn't as strong as he thinks he is and I'm just no longer sure there are enough Iraqis so see themselves as Iraqis first and foremost to do the job of keeping it all together. If there were, surely a multi-sectarian nationalist coalition (like the one that has kept promising it will form under various secular leaders from Chalabi to Allawi) would have already taken power by a parliamentary defeat of the separatist Powers That Be. I can quite understand why Ambasador Davutoglu thinks that ethnic and religious differences among Iraq's leadership are bound to flare again - and I don't believe there's a whole lot America or anyone else can do about that.