A week after the central government and Kurdish authorities in Iraq agreed to diffuse a military standoff in the north of the country, more than two dozen people were reported killed in the area on Monday in bomb attacks and gunfire.
It was the second consecutive day of violence in a part of that the country where control is disputed between the government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north.
As of Monday night, no group had yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The unrest comes a week after the two governments agreed to gradually withdraw their troops from the region and replace with them police forces.
Last month, Baghdad and Kurdistan sent soldiers and tanks from their respective armies to reinforce positions around towns in three provinces adjacent to Kurdish territory. It was the second military buildup in the region this year and highlighted the deep division between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration, 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.”
At the heart of the dispute lies the historic city of Kirkuk where eleven people died in attacks on Sunday. Both its Kurdish and Turkmen inhabitants are resistant to Arab rule. A referendum to decide the fate of the city, which is surrounded by oilfields, has been repeatedly delayed.
The Kurds have administered their territory in the north of Iraq since 1991 which is now the most stable in the country but they still rely on the central government for a 17 percent share of the national budget and for pipelines to export oil.
A recent agreement with Turkey to export oil overland decreases Kurdistan’s dependence on Baghdad. The regional government has also signed exploration deals with Chevron and ExxonMobil. Maliki’s government in Baghdad has dismissed these agreements as unconstitutional.
Neither Maliki nor Kurdistan stands to gain from an escalation of the violence which could end in civil war. But the former has a stronger political imperative not to relinquish. The prime minister’s ruling coalition is fractured. He 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 next election.
Maliki might fear that if the Kurds drift further from Baghdad but manage to get by economically, Iraq’s Sunnis, dissatisfied with his sectarian administration, will consider following the Kurdish example. That could fracture Iraq and leave a rump government in Baghdad virtually without oil revenue which currently provides 90 percent of its income.