For an indication of how rapidly sectarian divisions in Iraq can inflame the country, read this New York Times story. Not long ago I spoke with a prominent Iraqi leader, and he left me with little doubt that the Kurds were deeply unsatisfied with U.S. intransigence over resolving Kurdish displacement in the north–something Saddam engineered preceding and during his genocide of the Kurds in 1987-8–and that Iraqi Arabs would not react to unilateral Kurdish actions passively. Such a situation appears, dangerously, to be coming to pass:
<$NoAd$> Thousands of ethnic Kurds are pushing into lands formerly held by Iraqi Arabs, forcing tens of thousands of them to flee to ramshackle refugee camps and transforming the demographic and political map of northern Iraq.
The Kurds are returning to lands from which they were expelled by the armies of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party, who ordered thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed and sent waves of Iraqi Arabs north to fill the area with supporters.
The new movement, which began with the fall of Mr. Hussein, appears to have quickened this spring amid confusion about American policy, along with political pressure by Kurdish leaders to resettle the areas formerly held by Arabs. It is happening at a moment when Kurds are threatening to withdraw from the national government if they are not confident of having sufficient autonomy.
In Baghdad, American officials say they are struggling to keep the displaced Kurds on the north side of the Green Line, the boundary of the Kurdish autonomous region. The Americans agree that the Kurds deserve to return to their ancestral lands, but they want an orderly migration to avoid ethnic strife and political instability.
But thousands of Kurds appear to be ignoring the American orders. New Kurdish families show up every day at the camps that mark the landscape here, settling into tents and tumble-down homes as they wait to reclaim their former lands.
The Kurdish migration appears to be causing widespread misery, with Arabs complaining of expulsions and even murders at the hands of Kurdish returnees. Many of the Kurdish refugees themselves are gathered in crowded camps.
American officials say as many as 100,000 Arabs have fled their homes in north-central Iraq and are now scattered in squalid camps across the center of the country. With the anti-American insurgency raging across much of the same area, the Arab refugees appear to be receiving neither food nor shelter from the Iraqi government, relief organizations or American forces.
“The Kurds, they laughed at us, they threw tomatoes at us,” said Karim Qadam, a 45-year-old father of three, now living amid the rubble of a blown-up building in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. “They told us to get out of our homes. They told us they would kill us. They told us, `You don’t own anything here anymore.’ ” â¦
The biggest potential flash point is Kirkuk, a city contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. Kurdish leaders want to make the city, with its vast oil deposits, the Kurdish regional capital and resettle it with Kurds who were driven out in the 1980’s.
To make the point, some 10,000 Kurds have gathered in a sprawling camp outside Kirkuk, where they are pressing the American authorities to let them enter the city. American military officers who control Kirkuk say they are blocking attempts to expel more Arabs from the town, for fear of igniting ethnic unrest.
“The Kurds are pushing, pushing,” said Pascal Ishu Warda, the minister for displaced persons and migration. “We have to set up a system to deal with these people who have been thrown out of their homes.”$NoAd$>
Arabs will not react passively if they perceive the Kurds expelling Arabs from the north. Already, in heavily-armed Falluja, anti-Kurdish sentiment pervades. The Washington Post recently quoted one Iraqi who blamed the U.S. and the Kurds–participants in the April attack by the U.S. on the city–for the death of his daughter. “I will send my brothers north to kill the Kurds,” he said . The displacement of Arabs from the (oil-drenched) north might be all the spark that the (resource-light) Sunni areas require to lead to an all-out civil war.
And in that situation, what will the U.S. do? The Kurds are our allies in every significant sense: One of the most betrayed people in the history of the world, they fought with us to overthrow Saddam. We may well find ourselves having to deploy forces to separate Iraq’s different ethnicities, a very dangerous situation for our troops. How this will play out in practice in a place like Kirkuk–multiethnic, resource-rich and claimed by Arabs and Kurds alike–is incredibly difficult to determine. And it puts the U.S. in something close to a worst-case scenario.