Navigating Iraq's Next Nor'easter

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ERBIL, Iraq - The Commanding General of the Iraqi front, Raymond Odierno, is poised to move more troops to northern Iraq in the hopes of increasing joint patrols and halting a recent string of bombings in the region. That's a step in the right direction, but the U.S. also needs a prompt and comprehensive diplomatic strategy to reduce ethnic tensions and prevent fighting between Kurds and Arabs.

In recent months, tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government have escalated markedly; primarily over disputed territory and oil revenues. Those strains pose a real risk of military confrontation between Kurdish and Arab forces - especially preceding the January elections and further withdrawal of U.S. troops.

There have already been close calls in Mosul and Diyala, where firefights nearly broke out between Kurdish and Arab forces. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia actively seeks to exploit these fissures through a bombing campaign intended to provoke communal retaliation. While many Kurdish officials publicly reiterate their desire to peacefully resolve tensions, others indicate their patience is limited. Some Kurds are increasingly frustrated with delays in taking a census and then a referendum in the disputed territories - which have been deferred since 2007 and now indefinitely extended.

Arab and Kurdish officials face difficult domestic political pressures to produce results for the disputed territories and form coalitions for the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan (under U.S. pressure) was an encouraging gesture. But behind closed doors, many Iraqi and American observers believe that there is a significant chance of violence, sparked by an accidental scuffle or purposeful incursion, and that could spread quickly throughout the Kurdish-Arab frontier.

To prevent more bloodshed and preserve a unified Iraq, the United States must do more to manage tensions. Specifically, the Obama administration should take four actions:

First, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill should bring Kurdish and Arab officials (as well as Turkmen, Christians and other minorities) to a private setting in order to avoid publicly setting unreasonably high expectations, and firmly establish that the U.S. expects all parties to make difficult compromises in order to reach fair and lasting solutions on the disputed territories. Washington should also be prepared to use its economic and security assistance as leverage to prevent any attempts to delay talks.

Second, begin with Kirkuk and deal with other issues in stages. The multi-ethnic, oil-rich city of Kirkuk lies at the heart of Arab-Kurdish tensions. Kurds see Kirkuk as their "Jerusalem," and they seek to affiliate it with the Kurdish Region, share oil revenues and grant minorities rights. Other groups and countries worry that such a scenario would make the Kurds too strong (and more likely to declare independence someday) and instead seek other power-sharing arrangements. The U.S. should convene negotiations on Kirkuk and approach interrelated tradeoffs as they arise. That way, Washington can start pushing for progress on the most essential issue first - without having to solve all problems simultaneously, which could be unworkable and prone to manipulation.

Third, listen to local voices and minority groups. While talks will primarily involve top Kurdish and Arab officials, any accord must eventually be accepted and implemented by citizens of the disputed territories themselves. Local groups may also make different demands or concessions than their national counterparts, which can sometimes support mediation efforts by undercutting hard-line positions taken by negotiators from Baghdad or Erbil.

Fourth, capitalize on recent improvements in Turkish-Kurdish relations. While Turkey does not officially have a say in Iraq's internal territorial disputes, it supports Turkmen groups in Kirkuk and has a stake in the outcome. Washington should work with Ankara and Erbil to spell out assurances and reduce fears that deciding the disputed territories might ultimately infringe on Turkey's territorial integrity. The prospect of additional trade with Turkey might even help convince Baghdad or Erbil to sign a deal.

At best, these guideposts for diplomatic engagement can help resolve the disputed territories and lessen the chance of ethnic violence. At worst, they would bring the various parties to the table and start the process of finding shared interests. Then, if skirmishes do occur, there will at least be a forum to keep them from spiraling out of control. Ultimately, the fate of Iraq's Kurds and Arabs will be decided not just by what history owes them, but by the compromises they are willing to make.

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