Monday, 24 October 2011

Kurdish and Iraqi authorities in border flag dispute

Iraq's central government and the authorities of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are locked in a dispute over which flags are to fly at the border between their two jurisdictions.

KRG officials have insisted that they will not remove Kurdish flags from government buildings on the boundary line, defying instructions issued by Iraqi premier Nouri Al-Maliki in early October. An official from the peshmerga, the Kurdish security foreces, told Reuters that the Kurds “won't implement Maliki's order definitively unless the Kurdish people themselves lower the flag.”

The order from Maliki provoked strong reactions in the Kurdish region, particularly in border cities such as Mundhiriya and Khanaqin, where ethnic loyalties are most contested. Thousands took to the streets to protest the premier's instruction and subsequent statements by his office that raising the Kurdish flag in border areas was a “constitutional violation.”

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between the Kurdish government in Erbil and Baghdad. The KRG is seeking to incorporate Khanaqin, as well as other border regions, into their jurisdiction, something which Baghdad refuses. The two sides are also still at loggerheads over the fate of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, control of nearby oilfields, and an oil law which would determine the KRG's right to export oil.

Wider issues are also adding to the strains in the relationship. Last week's announcement that all US military forces would leave Iraq by the end of the year has refocused attention on the often tense relationship between Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga.

The US conducted joint patrols with Iraqi Arab and Kurdish military units in the border zones, helping to build trust and prevent stand-offs between the two forces. With their withdrawal, the future of the joint patrols is in doubt. Kurdish-only patrols in Arab-populated border areas will create tensions with the local community, and vice versa.

Another complicating factor is Turkey's cross-border operation against Kurdish militants, launched on 20th October. Although the KRG has sided with Turkey in its fight, the sustained presence of Turkish troops in Kurdistan is likely to cause a greater sense of national identity among Kurds. Combined with the flag issue, this is likely to cause greater tensions in the border regions between Kurds and Arabs.

Sources: AFP, Reuters

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