Publication Date: October 2010
Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service
Author(s): Kenneth Katzman
Research Area: Politics
The Kurdish-inhabited region of northern Iraq has been relatively peaceful and prosperous since the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, the Iraqi Kurds' political autonomy, and territorial and economic demands, have caused friction with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Arab leaders of Iraq, and with Christian and other minorities in the north. As the United States transitions to a support role in Iraq, these tensions are assessed by U.S. commanders as having the potential to erode the security gains that have taken place in Iraq since 2007. Some U.S. officials want to establish clear policies and provisions to contain these frictions in advance of the expected completion of the U.S. military departure from Iraq at the end of 2011. Turkey and Iran were skeptical about Kurdish autonomy in Iraq but have reconciled themselves to this reality and have emerged as major investors in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The major territorial, financial, and political issues between the Kurds and the central government do not appear close to resolution. Tensions increased after Kurdish representation in two key mixed provinces was reduced by the January 31, 2009, provincial elections. The disputes nearly erupted into all-out violence between Kurdish militias and central government forces in mid- 2009, and the Kurds continue not to recognize the authority of the Sunni Arab governor of Nineveh Province in Kurdish-inhabited areas of the province. The low-level clashes in 2009 caused the U.S. military to propose new U.S. deployments designed to build confidence between Kurdish and government forces; joint U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish militia patrols began in January 2010. The Kurds also perceive that their role as "kingmakers" in Iraq's central government - their ability to throw their parliamentary votes toward one side or another Œ was reduced by the March 7, 2010 elections which saw the seats held by the major Kurdish factions lowered from previous levels. The Kurds' political clout in Baghdad is further reduced by the political ferment in the Kurdish region itself. The Kurdish region voted for president and for members of the Kurdistan National Assembly on July 25, 2009. The results, in which an opposition list won almost 25% of the vote, have threatened the previously iron grip on the politics and economy of the region exercised by the two main factions--the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The two main factions competed as a joint list in the March 7, 2010, national elections for the next full-term government. However, the Kurdish opposition competed separately and won several seats on its own--parliamentary votes which the opposition might not necessarily place at the disposal of the mainstream Kurdish leaders for the purpose of bargaining with Iraq's Arabs. For more on Iraq, see CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman.