As Kurds eye state­hood, a bor­der takes shape

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The sand berms and trenches that snake across north­ern Iraq stretch to­ward Syria, some ac­com­pa­nied by newly paved roads lit by street lamps and sprawl­ing check­points decked with Kur­dish flags. The fight­ers here in­sist it isn’t the bor­der of a newly in­de­pen­dent state - but in the chaos of Iraq that could change. Con­struc­tion be­gan in 2014, when this marked the front line be­tween USbacked Kur­dish forces, known as the pesh­merga, and the Is­lamic State group, which had swept across north­ern Iraq that sum­mer, rout­ing the army and threat­en­ing the Kur­dish au­ton­o­mous region. Since then, a more per­ma­nent bound­ary has taken shape as Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions for out­right in­de­pen­dence have grown.

Fault-line of new con­flict

The fron­tier could mark the fault­line of a new con­flict in Iraq once the ex­trem­ists are de­feated. A sim­i­lar process is un­der­way in Syria, where Syr­ian Kur­dish forces have seized large swathes of land from IS. “It was our front line, now it’s our bor­der, and we will stay for­ever,” said pesh­merga commander and busi­ness mag­nate Sir­wan Barzani. He’s among a grow­ing num­ber of Kur­dish lead­ers, in­clud­ing his un­cle, the Kur­dish region’s Pres­i­dent Mas­soud Barzani, who say that lands taken from IS will re­main in Kur­dish hands.

The Kurds have been at log­ger­heads with the Baghdad govern­ment over the so-called dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries - lands stretch­ing across north­ern and eastern Iraq - since the 2003 US-led in­va­sion. Ar­ti­cle 140 of the Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion says their fate should be de­cided by a ref­er­en­dum, but such a vote has yet to be held, and as the Iraqi army col­lapsed in 2014, the Kurds moved in. They took con­trol of the long-dis­puted north­ern city of Kirkuk that sum­mer, osten­si­bly to pro­tect it from IS. Since then, with the aid of USled airstrikes, the Kurds have taken ter­ri­tory equiv­a­lent to 50 per­cent of their rec­og­nized au­ton­o­mous region.

“Af­ter the de­feat of IS, Sun­nis will dis­pute the Kur­dish claims, the Shi­ites in Baghdad will dis­pute both the Sunni claims and the Kur­dish claims, and the pos­si­bil­ity of con­flict there is real,” said An­war Anaid, dean of so­cial sciences at the Univer­sity of Kur­dis­tan Hewler. “What hap­pens on the ground de­pends on the cir­cum­stances. There is a real Kur­dish wish to go for in­de­pen­dence.” Pesh­merga commander Aref Tay­mour said that once IS is driven from the north­ern city of Mo­sul, the Kurds will ne­go­ti­ate a new bor­der with Baghdad.

Lib­er­ated by blood

But he added that “lands that have been lib­er­ated by blood, we have no in­ten­tion to give them back to the fed­eral govern­ment.” An­other Kur­dish of­fi­cial, Dishad Mawlod, was even more di­rect, de­scrib­ing the for­ti­fi­ca­tions as the “fu­ture bor­ders of Kur­dis­tan.” “We’re not vi­o­lat­ing any in­ter­na­tional laws, nor are we oc­cu­py­ing any­one’s land,” he said. Barzani, the re­gional pres­i­dent’s nephew, said the Kurds no longer trust the Iraqi army to de­fend the coun­try, af­ter it lost nearly a third of it to IS two and a half years ago. “Of course there will be an­other Daesh,” he said, re­fer­ring to IS by its Ara­bic acro­nym. “None of the in­ter­nal Iraqi is­sues have been re­solved,” he added, say­ing the Kurds “will be ready.” In the mean­time, he hopes for talks on in­de­pen­dence as early as next year. “It’s a bad mar­riage, let’s get a di­vorce,” he said. The Baghdad govern­ment is staunchly op­posed to Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence, and Prime Min­is­ter Haider Al-Abadi says he ex­pects the Kurds to abide by an agree­ment that they with­draw from ar­eas cap­tured since the start of the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion in Oc­to­ber.

“Some Kur­dish politi­cians are say­ing oth­er­wise. But they are not re­spon­si­ble peo­ple and they are not con­trol­ling events on the ground,” AlAbadi said in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press last week. The two sides have set the dis­pute aside as they work to­gether to drive IS from Mo­sul, Iraq’s sec­ond largest city, but the con­struc­tion along the fron­tier is con­tin­u­ing. On one road south of Mo­sul, pesh­merga fight­ers were build­ing cin­derblock stair­ways lead­ing to of­fices in trail­ers, as guard posts were be­ing set up fur­ther along the line.

Aware of the sen­si­tiv­i­ties, Iraqi soldiers and Kur­dish fight­ers sta­tioned along the fron­tier are re­luc­tant to speak about the mat­ter. “You can’t take pictures, and what­ever you do, don’t call this a bor­der!” a pesh­merga fighter said as he came saun­ter­ing out of a check­point com­plex along the fron­tier. He re­fused to give his name. At a nearby army position, Iraqi sol­dier Hus­sein Jassem ac­knowl­edged that “there is a bor­der be­tween us and the pesh­merga.” He de­clined to comment fur­ther. — AP

MO­SUL: Iraqis who fled fight­ing be­tween Iraqi forces and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants wait next of their pick­ups to cross to the Kur­dish ar­eas through a sand barrier cre­ated by Kur­dish forces to de­mar­cate their bor­der, in the Nin­eveh plain, north­east of Mo­sul, Iraq. — AP

ALEPPO: Syr­ian pro-govern­ment troops walk on a street in Aleppo’s eastern Karm AlJa­bal neigh­bor­hood as they ad­vance to­wards Al-Shaar neigh­bor­hood yes­ter­day dur­ing their of­fen­sive to re­take Syria’s sec­ond city. — AFP

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