2000 Georgian Troops Leaving; Huge Blast at Tal Afar Kills 21; Arab-Kurdish Tensions in Kirkuk; Mahdi Army to Disarm if US Leaves

A huge bomb blast in the northern Turkmen city of Tal Afar killed 21 and wounded 70 on Friday. Tal Afar has been taken over by Shiite Turkmen, after having been dominated in the Saddam period by Sunnis, so there are a lot of Sunnis who want revenge. It also has Turkmen-Kurdish tensions, which are raging in northern Iraq these days because of the Kirkuk crisis (see below).

In the wake of the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian War over Ossetia, Georgia wants to withdraw the 2,000 troops it has in Iraq. These troops appear to have been based in Diyala or Wasit provinces, where they have been preventing Shiite militiamen from smuggling arms in from Iran. Although the US military is playing down the impact of their withdrawal, it seems to me significant. The Iraqi army certainly could not be counted on to take up their work, since so much of it was recruited from Shiite militias. The US would have to divert 2,000 men to this dangerous task (and it is intrinsically dangerous to have US troops directly on the Iranian border). The Georgians beefed up their presence because they are trying to join NATO; from a Russian point of view this development is highly undesirable, which is part of the point of the fighting over Ossetia.

All this is not to mention that a US airlift of 2000 Georgian troops to fight Russian ones at this juncture does not look friendly to Moscow.

McClatchy reports that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr pledged Friday to disband his Mahdi Army militia if the government of Nuri al-Maliki succeeded in obtaining a timetable for US troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Salah al-Ubaidi, a spokesman for the Sadr Movement, said Friday that the Sadrists will dissolve the Mahdi Army if US troops begin withdrawing in accordance with a timetable. But al-Ubaidi, who read a statement before Friday prayers at the Kufa Mosque, affirmed that the Movement would reverse its decision if the US forces reneged on their intention to withdraw. He also pledged that the “resistance” would not stop until the American forces had left Iraq (though apparently it would not be a violent resistance as long as American forces were in the process of drawing down).

On another front, al-Hayat says, Iraqi members of parliament were open about their apprehensions over the tense situation in Kirkuk after the visit to that city of Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani and his renewed threat to annex it to the Kurdistan Regional Authority in accordance with the resolution passed by the Kurdish majority on city’s governing council a few weeks ago at a time when Arab and Turkman representatives were boycotting the sessions. (The resolution was not viewed as binding by Iraqi legal experts). During Barzani’s visit on Friday, he met with local officials and called for an open dialogue to end the dispute over Kirkuk’s identity. He warned that “Those who maintain that article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is dead are instigating public unrest.” Article 140 called for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk Province by the end of 2006 on whether the province would join the Kurdistan confederacy. Since it is widely recognized that in the meantime the Kurdish forces have brought very large numbers of Kurds into the province, such that they are probably a majority, however, all the referendum would establish in the eyes of Arabs and Turkmen would be that the Kurds had stolen the vote.

NPR reports on the opening of the airport near the Shiite holy city of Najaf and that city’s aspirations to become the capital of southern Iraq. This report is searching and intelligent, and reminds us how much we need NPR.

Antiwar.com summarizes Iraqi political violence on Friday.