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At a time when many are heralding the success of peaceful provincial elections in Iraq, the release of a report by the Carnegie Endowment serves as a reminder that there is still work to be done, especially on the Kurdish issue.
According to the report, a U.S. pullout of Iraq before it can address the Kurdish problem there risks unleashing renewed bloodshed in the country. To be successful, any approach to the issue must involve Turkey and progress in addressing its own Kurdish grievances (a sentiment echoed loudly by Turkish news outlets).
The author, Henri Barkey, prescribes a fresh U.S. approach, arguing that the United States must move quickly — as American forces withdraw from Iraq, U.S. influence in the region will wane. Barkey is a nonresident senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program and Chair of the International Relations Department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
Most discussion about the security dangers of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq tends to center on the threats of jihadist insurgents, friction between the Sunni Awakening militias and the Shiite-led government, and intra-Shiite power struggles. But many are beginning to worry that mounting tensions between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in the north could produce one of the most dangerous flash points.
The invasion of Iraq has surfaced long-suppressed nationalist aspirations among the Kurds, most notably the emergence of the federal Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). If ignored or mishandled, Kurdish aspirations have the potential to ignite violence and instability in Iraq, as well as the region, at a particularly delicate time, Barkey concludes.
Finding a solution to Kirkuk, establishing dialogue and cooperation between Turkey and the KRG in northern Iraq, and demobilizing the PKK should be Washington’s priorities, said Barkey.
Furthermore, he argues that the U.S. objective should be to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity within the confines of a federal and democratic state.
"Iraqi territorial integrity is dependent on Iraq’s ability to integrate its Kurdish population into a successful federal framework. Unless a legitimate solution is formulated, Kirkuk stands ready to explode into interethnic conflict," Barkey said in the report.
For the U.S., the Kurdish issue touches on many vital concerns — the future of Iraq and the ability of U.S. combat forces to disengage responsibly; its relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally and aspirant for EU membership; and the stability of oil-rich northern Iraq at a time of considerable energy uncertainty.
“The United States has to take the lead, because it remains, despite its mistakes, the only power with the requisite capacities to cajole, convince, and pressure governments and groups to act,” Barkey said.