The battle of Basra may be virtually over. But nobody’s talking about the invisible Battle of Mosul.
President George W Bush’s self-described “defining moment” in Iraq amounted to this: General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) , brokered a deal in Qom, Iran, between Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s envoys and Hadi al-Amri, the head of the Badr Organization and number two to Adbul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and a key player of the government in Baghdad. That sealed the end of the battle of Basra.
The IRGC was designated last year by Washington as a terrorist organization. Thus Iranian “terrorists” brokered a peace deal between the two largest Shi’ite parties in Iraq – ending a Baghdad government offensive that was fully authorized and supported by air power by Washington, according to Bush’s National Security Adviser Steven Hadley. Even under Bush logic, “the terrorists” won, and Iran won – once again.
The annexation game
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, the Kurds are meticulously involved in de facto annexing strategically crucial, oil-rich Tameem province, whose capital is Kirkuk, with reserves of up to 15 billion barrels. Sunni Arabs and Shi’ite Turkmen fear the prospect – and are dead-set against the postponed Kirkuk referendum, which should have been held on December 2007. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad knew for sure they would lose this vote and thus see Kirkuk become a part of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. So giving the excuse of “administrative problems”, they simply postponed the referendum.
It’s true that Saddam Hussein “Arabized” Kirkuk by getting rid of Kurds and bringing in Sunni Arabs. In theory, the name of the game now is restoring Kirkuk’s population balance to the same level prior to Saddam’s forced Arabization. The Kurds are angered with the referendum being postponed and any spark at this stage could turn into another full-blown civil war.
This year, a smatter of Sunni and Shi’ite political parties united in calling the Kurdish platform “too large and irrational” – and that included Muqtada and former prime minister Iyad Allawi. As things stand, if there’s no Kirkuk referendum, the provincial governor and the Kurdish-dominated legislature could unilaterally call for a vote.
It’s a total impasse. Sunni Arabs in Iraq would never forgive any government in Baghdad for delivering Kirkuk to the Kurds. And the Kurds will fight to the death for Kirkuk. Sunni Arabs keep denouncing accelerated, regional “Kurdification” – translated as Kurdish monopoly of the provincial council and jobs in the police and civil service. This has led to the formation of Sunni Arab “Awakening Councils” – just as in the Sunni belt – also financed and armed by the Americans.
Kurdish journalist Rebwar Fatah insists Kurds will never give up Kirkuk – unless in the very unlikely event that the city’s population rejects annexation in the endlessly postponed Kirkuk referendum. And no matter how the explosive situation is spun, Kirkuk’s population will always want to directly benefit from the surrounding oil wealth.
‘Clear, hold and build’
But the whole problem goes way beyond Kirkuk. Kurds are also claiming half of Mosul, although Mosul has never been Kurdish. Nowadays, eastern Mosul is Kurdish and western Mosul is Sunni Arab. The Tigris River cuts the city in half.
Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq and capital of Ninevah province, is (quietly) billed in Washington as being in the front line of the “war on terror” – more precisely, the war on al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic Archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, has been a victim of kidnapping. Unemployment is running at a whopping 70% – about the same as in Baghdad. Kidnapping is a prosperous industry. Public services are in shambles.
The Pentagon goes for its standard counterinsurgency approach – “clear, hold and build” – building a wall of mud and earth around the city’s perimeter to prevent weapon smuggling as well as endless checkpoints for US and “Iraqi” forces. The problem is, these “Iraqi” forces are all Kurdish Peshmerga.
In late January, Maliki spun the success of a “decisive battle” against al-Qaeda in Mosul. It didn’t amount to much. This month, the Iraqi police, army and border guards will all be linked with the Americans, just as in Baghdad. The difference is that unlike Baghdad, virtually all of them are Kurds.
It’s true that a few hundred al-Qaeda jihadis, plus a few thousand Sunni Arab guerrillas, have fled to the Mosul area during the “surge”. But that does not justify what’s actually happening; 12,000 Iraqi Kurd troops plus 9,000 mostly Kurd police are using the Americans to perform their slow motion ethnic cleansing of Sunni Arabs while the Americans – with only 1,900 soldiers on the ground – spin it as a success for the “war on terror”. And that still leaves room for Kurds to bitterly complain about lack of trucks, weapons and ammunition.
So where’s the Kurd-Arab border?
More than 90% of Iraqi Kurds want independence. Kirkuk and Mosul as part of a Kurdish entity will mean the expansion of a process that already features direct negotiations and agreements with oil companies such as Hunt Oil (totally bypassing Baghdad), signature of contracts with at least 30 international investors, and developing a new Kurdish constitution that totally contradicts Iraq’s constitution – the one approved in 2005 after immense American pressure.
Mosul is a multicultural city. It’s not part of Kurdistan. As for the only possible answer to the Kirkuk riddle, it would be transforming it into a kind of Brussels – a special autonomous region, independent from Iraqi Kurdistan. Then Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and Chaldeans would all be able to coexist without friction. The proposal – by Pawzi Akram, a Turkmen – made it to the Iraqi Parliament. It was mercilessly shot down by both Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The battle for Kirkuk and Mosul holds its own riddle; its outcome will determine how a knocked out Iraq will eventually perish, partitioned among Sunni Arabs, Shi’ites and Kurds.
Who will profit from it? Ayman el-Amir, writing last year in Egypt’s al-Ahram Weekly, has come to as good a conclusion as any. The winner, according to him, will be Israel. Low-intensity civil war is already on – in fact multiplying itself into Shi’ite-Shi’ite civil war, such as in Basra, or Sunni Arab-Kurdish civil war, such as the battle for Kirkuk and Mosul.
Israel would like nothing better than a proxy war in Iraq pitting Iran and its Arab allies against Sunni Arab US allies. Meanwhile, writes al-Amir, “Israel would build a political-military-economic alliance with a semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government, with oil wealth that would be considerably enhanced by the prospect of taking over Arab Kirkuk and Mosul.” Israeli interests – not to mention strategic intelligence – are already deeply entrenched in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish leaders have already demonstrated an extraordinary mobility to always strike deals with the best-positioned bidder – or with any player capable of advancing the utmost Kurdish dream, independence. As for a US-Israeli-greater Kurdistan alliance, that may still be Washington’s way to achieve its own dream of a new, greater Middle East. If those pesky, enraged, realist, Iraqi nationalist Sunnis and Shi’ites don’t get in the way.