Another fault line in Iraq
Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, made a surprising statement on Monday by asking the United States to stop the sale of F-16 jet fighters to Iraq, the country he is a part of.
His justification is both solid and gives a strong idea about the deepening political rift - or rather rifts - in Iraq under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Barzani told reporters an anecdote from a closed meeting in Baghdad, in which an officer offers al-Maliki to clean Erbil (the capital of the Kurdish Iraqi region) off their hands within a few days. Al-Maliki replied to the offer: “Wait until the F-16s arrive.”
Memories of the Halabja tragedy in 1988, when Saddam Hussein’s armies attacked the Kurdish-populated town with chemical weapons and killed at least 5,000 inhabitants (triggering the first wave of Iraqi Kurdish migration to Turkey) are still strong. Therefore, Barzani might have a point when asking the U.S. not to empower “this man” - meaning the Shiite-origin Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki - to have weapons to be able to hit the Kurds once again.
The anecdote shows that the lack of trust between the major groups in Iraq, (Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds), has escalated to dangerous levels. One should keep in mind that the Sunni-origin Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashimi, has been on the run for a while now because of the charges of undermining the al-Maliki government against him. Barzani has given shelter to al-Hashimi in Erbil, only to be threatened by al-Maliki with sending him back to Baghdad. That was why when Barzani left Erbil for his contacts in the U.S., al-Hashimi flew to Qatar for his safety first, then to Saudi Arabia, and then on to Turkey, where he is currently staying.
When Barzani was in Turkey, in addition to his words praising Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s new approach to the Kurdish problem and calling on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to drop arms, he denounced al-Maliki as a threat to Iraq’s unity. That was followed by a strong statement by Erdoğan warning al-Maliki to avoid sectarian and ethnic discrimination among his citizens. In return, al-Maliki accused Erdoğan of trying to stir his company up, and flew to Tehran over the weekend.
To highlight the timing and importance of his F-16 statement, Barzani raised his voice on the next day he returned his hometown from Turkey, when al-Maliki was still in Iran. If that was not alarming enough for the future of Iraq, a few more sentences could be quoted from what Barzani said. Recalling his oil deal with the American giant Exxon, to which al-Maliki has reacted, Barzani said: “If ExxonMobil comes it will be equal to 10 American military divisions. They will defend the area if their interests are there.”
It should not be a surprise to anyone if things get worse in Iraq in the coming days and weeks.