In Iraq, Kurdish-Arab Tensions Simmer

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be in Washington next week to meet with President Obama. The talks come amid increasing friction between Iraq's Arabs and its ethnic Kurd minority, posing a threat to the country's unity.

The president of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region says ethnic tension is driving Iraq's Kurds and the central government in Baghdad dangerously close to confrontation.

Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish region's president, also tells NPR that whoever wants to get ahead in Iraqi politics does it by criticizing the Kurds.

Kurds Criticized

Arab politicians in Iraq accuse Kurds of expanding into disputed territories along the border between Iraq and the Kurdish region, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab member of Iraq's parliament, says there is no trust between Kurdish and Arab politicians. He says the Kurds treat Arab Iraq as a separate country with which they are competing.

The Kurdistan region in northern Iraq has been autonomous since 1991. Kurds favored the 2003 U.S. invasion and have since participated fully in the Iraqi central government.

Barzani says the problems can be resolved through dialogue, but he and Maliki have not spoken for a year. During that period, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish defense forces have come close to shooting at each other on at least four occasions, according to Nechirvan Barzani, the Kurdistan Region's prime minister.

"If it were not for the American army to be stationed between our forces and their forces, there would have been definitely confrontation," Nechirvan Barzani says.

Escalating Tensions

Most recently, on June 28, Nechirvan Barzani says, Iraqi army soldiers arrived in the mostly Kurdish town of Debaga, northwest of Kirkuk, at around 2 a.m. Citizens filled the streets to prevent the army from passing, and a mostly Kurdish division of the Iraqi army arrived and blocked the road, essentially putting Kurdish and Arab units of the same army on opposite ends of machine gun barrels. It took 24 hours to resolve the issue, and the Arab unit eventually withdrew.

U.S. Army spokesman Maj. Derrick Cheng confirmed the events. He said the Iraqi Arab troops were in transit toward Mosul, and that they eventually took a different route. What the Americans have described as a wrong turn looks to the Kurds like a deliberate provocation by Baghdad.

"Our problem is that we do not believe there is any political will in Baghdad to solve this problem," Nechirvan Barzani says.

He suspects this will not improve as Maliki begins his reelection campaign and tries to motivate Arab voters. Communication about confrontations like Debaga does not appear to be improving.

Two officials from Maliki's office as well as the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman denied any knowledge of the standoff.

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