Death Toll in Kirkuk Rises to 33; Growing Arab-Kurdish Violence Threatens Stability of Iraq; 4 US Troops Killed

The casualty toll in the Kirkuk bombing on Tuesday has risen to 33, with about 100 injured.

Four US troops were killed in Iraq on Tuesday, as well, though the circumstances are still murky.

The Iraqi civil wars kicked off by the American invasion of 2003 continue. I’m sure a lot of observers think it is all one internal war, but it is not. It is multiple. Nor is the bombing relevant to the American withdrawal from the cities, as some press reports are implying, since there were never very many US troops in Kurdistan or the Iraqi north generally. (Though settling the Arab-Kurdish problem before they leave will be essential to a good exit for Americans).

A bombing like this in Kirkuk means something different than a similar event in Baghdad or in Shiite Nasiriyah in the south. A lot of the violence in the south is among Shiite militias; there are few Sunnis, and their freedom of movement is constrained (a Tikriti “r” is different from the “r” used in the south, and so the religio-ethnic difference can sometimes be heard; plus, Sunnis typically don’t know the details of the lives of the 12 Imams sacred to the Shiites and so can fairly easily be caught out.)

A bombing in Baghdad typically indicates continued conflict between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, though my best guess is that Sunni Arabs are only 10-15% of Baghdad now, so that the bombings are more helpless raging revenge than effective guerrilla politics.

But in Kirkuk, even if it is the radical vigilantes (“Salafi jihadis” or what the US press calls ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’) that are behind the bombing, it has a different significance. Kirkuk is the arena for a potentially epochal struggle between the Arabs (both Sunni and Shiite) and the Kurds (mostly Sunni, who do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue).

Tuesday’s blast was the second major such attack in a week and a half, since 70 were killed in Kirkuk in a bombing just 10 days ago.

The Kurdistan Regional Government is a special federal region within Iraq, comprising what used to be 3 provinces that have now been conjoined into one administration. But the KRG is not satisfied with this territory. Its leaders what to annex large swathes of Iraq proper, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The Kurds, who were favored by the Neocons and assisted on the ground by powerful American supporters such as Peter Galbraith and Brendan O’Leary, had an article put into the new Iraqi constitution demanding a referendum on the future of Kirkuk, to be conducted in that province, by the end of 2007. It never happened, because it was a sort of ultimatum, and military historians know that ultimatums usually kick off a war. Since the Kurdish authorities largely control the police and security forces in Kirkuk province (a legacy of the cooperation of the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary in helping the US take the city of Kirkuk in the 2003 war), the Kurdistan authorities have been in a good position to flood the province with Kurdish immigrants, some of them returnees who had been ethnically cleansed in the name of Arabization by Saddam Hussein, but some at least of whom are probably new to the province. So the Kurds would probably win a referendum.

But the Arabs and Turkmen, who together form at least a plurality, are die-hard against being dragooned into Kurdistan (remember, the practice in the KRG has been to erase provincial borders and meld the administration into one, which means that Kirkuk Arabs and Turkmen will be a tiny minority in the sea of a unified Kurdistan).

On Monday, 50 Iraqi members of parliament had entered a protest against the draft constitution for Kurdistan, which will be submitted to a referendum in the KRG, since it explicitly claims Kirkuk and parts of Ninevah and Diyala provinces and appears to endorse a Greater Kurdistan that would threaten Turkey, Iran and Syria as well as Arab Iraq. The new constitution is also being criticized by Kurdish secularists for making Islam the state religion and forbidding the civil legislature to pass laws contrary to sharia or Islamic canon law.

Kurdistan leaders are increasingly intolerant of press criticism, having on more than one occasion jailed journalists or confiscated runs of publications.

So the bombing is not just a manifestation of fundamentalist terrorism, though it may be that. It is political, and aims at achieving political aims, in a way that the random and ineffectual bombings in Baghdad no longer can hope to.

I am not sympathetic to movements coming out of 19th century romantic nationalism, which tend to reify ethnicity in an almost racist manner and posit essentialist connections between land and people (especially silly in those parts of the Middle East, such as Iraq, where a third to a half of people were pastoralists wandering around until the twentieth century). The Arab-Kurdish divide in Iraq is extremely unfortunate and economically irrational. If Iraq can ever reestablish security and develop the southern oil fields, which are enormous, Kurds will be drawn down south as workers in large numbers, and get spread around the country. The Kirkuk fields are old, water-logged and on the way to being worked out. Iraq’s future probably lies elsewhere and therefore probably so does the future of Kurdish citizens of Iraq. Kurds would be wiser to forget about trying to control territory in the 19th century way and surrender to the messiness, ethnic mixing and multiple identities, and uprootedness of postmodern life. And nothing better exemplifies such postmodernism than the polyglot hydrocarbon states of the Gulf. If Kurds aren’t careful they’ll be stuck landlocked, with small resources, and surrounded by powerful local enemies fearful of their separatism, while Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans get rich working in the oil economy of the Arab Shiite south of Iraq.

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