Fear of Civil War as Iraqi-Kurdish Talks Collapse

The central and Kurdish governments fail to diffuse a military standoff in the north of Iraq.

Iraqi T-72 tanks pass through a highway checkpoint on their way to Forward Operating Base Camp Taji, May 18, 2006
Iraqi T-72 tanks pass through a highway checkpoint on their way to Forward Operating Base Camp Taji, May 18, 2006 (DoD/Michael Larson)

Talks between Iraq’s central and its Kurdish regional government that were aimed at diffusing military tension in the north collapsed on Friday, raising fear of renewed civil war in the county less than a year after the last of American combat troops pulled out.

Central government forces were deployed to three provinces adjacent to the Kurdish region earlier this month in what Baghdad described as a necessary measure to address the deteriorating security situation there. The Kurds interpreted the move as an attempt on the central government’s part to consolidate its control of the area and mobilized troops of their own. The two sides have been at a standoff for more than a week.

It is the second military buildup in the region this year and highlights the deep division between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration in Baghdad, which is dominated by Shia Muslims, and the Kurds who regard warily what the region’s president Masoud Barzani described in April as the premier’s increasingly “authoritarian rule.”

Earlier this week, Barzani described the Iraqi troop deployment as a plot against the Kurds and vowed that his own soldiers would deter Baghdad’s “militarism.”

The unrest in the north comes amid allegations of corruption connected with a Russian arms deal that have paralyzed Maliki’s already fractured ruling coalition. The Shia prime minister has reached out to Sunni politicians and the militant Shia faction that is associated with the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr but will be hard pressed to maintain his majority in the 2014 election.

As Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis remain locked in a bitter dispute for political supremacy, the Kurds in recent years have pursued an independent policy, including oil exports to neighboring Turkey which the central government denounced as “illegal and illegitimate” in July.

Maliki would fear that if the Kurds, who already enjoy a high level of autonomy, drift further from Baghdad but manage to get by economically, other regions will consider following their example. That could fracture Iraq and leave the central government without oil revenue which provides 90 percent of its income.