photo: Eddy van Wessel


Friday, November 23, 2012

The fear underneath

The threat is always there, here in Iraqi Kurdistan. The threat of violence and war, struggle and strife. Yet some times it is more apparent than usually. Then people take their savings from the bank, the check points work more strictly, the media talk about hardly anything else anymore and politicians are out of reach because they are too busy solving the issue.

That is what is happening at the moment, with the tension that has grown over the Dijla Force, the military operation started by the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki in three provinces that border the Kurdistan Region. This covers also the so-called disputed areas, which Kurds feel should be part of their region, like Kirkuk, Mahmour, Khanaqin.

This issue of the disputed areas was supposed to have been solved under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. A census and a referendum should have taken place long ago to decide who is in charge in those areas. In the mean time, the Kurds have gained the administrative power and are guarding the safety, making the disputed areas a relatively safe place to be.

Yet while the Iraqi president (and Kurdish leader) Talabani was in Germany for medical treatment, and against his earlier requests not to, Al-Maliki has created an Operation Command in Kirkuk, to 'fill the gaps in the safety'  between the local police and the Kurdish security forces, so he says.

The Dijla (Tigris) Force has enraged and frightened the Kurds, who still remember well how their people were treated by Saddam's army in the eighties and nineties. I saw the Iraqi army move around in their vehicles in the areas just outside of the KRG, and I do not have problems imagining that this creates fear. At the same time it should be noted that Al-Maliki has the right to send troops to those areas, as they are officially still with the Baghdad government. But the Iraqi PM knew he was treading on dangerous soil.

It is the memory of what happened and the fear that it will again, that has made the Kurds hang on to their own fighters, the Peshmerga, even though the force was supposed to have become part of the Iraqi army. They have learned not to trust Baghdad, and even though now the Kurds have their own federate state inside Iraq and have seats in the federal parliament and ministers in its government, the trust still is minimal and easily lost. So it was the Peshmerga that was called in to counter the Iraqi army; facing it in the disputed areas to make sure it does not cross the borders into areas under Kurdish rule.

The media in Kurdistan are playing an important role in this sentiment. They report on hardly anything else, quote politicians calling it a dangerous development, and create an atmosphere of crisis. And suddenly the normal life sort of stops in Kurdistan. I heard of people who took their money out of the bank, fearing they could not if the war started. I try to have appointments with politicians but am told they are too busy with this issue. And the media show me, meeting after meeting, of politicians who discuss and then come out with a statement against the Dijla Force. Taxi drivers and others talk of the threat of war.

The only positive thing that has come out so far, is that the Kurdistan Parliament has found a consensus on the subject. Politicians in this country behave often as if they are each others' worse enemies, but considering the Dijla Force the parliament came out with a unanimous condemnation, uniting for once both the government and the opposition.

After a deadly incident happened involving Iraqi soldiers and police and civilians, the Kurds also had the ear of the Americans. Vice-president Biden chose an Arabic magazine to speak out against the force, and threatened to put the disputed areas under American military rule if the issue is not solved.

Since then, Al-Maliki has offered to put the force under a joint command, and he promised to send his vice-PM to Kurdistan to discuss the matter. That should have released some tension. Yet for civilians, nothing has changed. Is it safe to buy a new car? Why clean up the outside of your house if it could be war any moment? Why build a new house if it might get damaged by the military?

Those same people were saying very recently: let's buy a new car, and a new sitting room, and a bed room, because we do not know how much longer we will be able to enjoy our money in peace. I hardly know any place where there are so many car sales and so many furniture shops as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Consumption to ward off the fear, to hide the insecurity about the future.

Will we keep our own Kurdish state? Will the tensions with Baghdad lead to fighting? Will the fighting from Syria spill over? Will the animosity between the Kurdish politicians again lead to war, like in the nineties? Questions in the back of the minds of many people in Kurdistan. It only takes some movements and words of politicians to bring it out again.

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