As the U.S. military prepares for rapid disengagement from Iraq following parliamentary elections to be held early next year, growing Arab-Kurdish tensions in northern Iraq over the ownership of “disputed territories” are emerging as the main threat to Iraqi stability. In response to rising violence and high-profile insurgent attacks in Ninawa province, U.S. General Raymond Odierno announced an initiative to facilitate Arab-Kurdish cooperation. But as elections approach, his proposal is facing political opposition and practical challenges that complicate U.S. plans to reduce ethnic tensions ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces in August 2010.
At the fault-line of the Arab-Kurdish conflict in northern Iraq is Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city and the capital of Ninawa province. Mosul is often characterized as an ethnic tinderbox, with its population consisting of 70% Sunni Arabs and 25% Kurds; the remaining residents include Arab Shi’a, Turcomans, Yezidis, and Christians. Home to a predominately Sunni population and well known as a former Ba’athist stronghold near the Syrian border, Mosul is an ideal locale for active insurgent support and recruitment. According to one report, as many as 300,000 inhabitants of the city offered to contribute to Ba’athist military, security, and intelligence efforts before Operation Iraqi Freedom. 
Though Iraq witnessed overall improvements in security after the U.S. military adopted a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy from 2007-2009, the Mosul area continued to witness a high level of casualties. In January 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deployed the Iraq army towards Mosul in what was intended to be a “decisive” battle against the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). But after multiple operations by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to uproot insurgent strongholds, AQI and affiliated terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq still have the capacity to carry out high-profile attacks throughout the province. By March 2008, the chief of special operations and intelligence information for Multi-National Force-Iraq would call Mosul the “strategic center of gravity” for AQI (American Forces Press Service, March 4, 2008).
According to the U.S. military, insurgents are now exploiting the Arab-Kurdish rift in Ninawa in the hopes of inciting sectarian violence and destabilizing the political process. In late July, Odierno described the ethnic conflict in the north as the “No. 1 driver of instability” in Iraq (AP, July 29). The January 2009 provincial elections shifted the balance of power within the Ninawa provincial government away from the Kurds to the majority Sunni Arabs. The newly elected Sunni Arab governor Atheel al-Nujaifi insists on retaining full sovereignty over all of Ninawa, explicitly demanding that all peshmerga (Kurdish militia) forces yield their security profile to the ISF and exit the province:
"The existence of disputed areas in the province does not imply that the Kurdish Region can put them under its control until a resolution is reached. These areas should be under one authority, that of Ninawa Province, which is controlled by the central authority in the capital city of Baghdad" (Niqash, February 24).
In August, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stated that al-Nujaifi was responsible for the recent deaths of 2,000 Kurds, claiming the new Arab leadership was “adopting a policy of national, sectarian, and religious cleansing in Ninawa.” (Aswat al-Iraq, August 14). The KRG argues that peshmerga forces in Ninawa are necessary to protect Kurdish inhabitants in “disputed territories” under the provisions of Article 140 of the Iraq constitution. Devised to confront the “Arabization” campaigns of northern Iraq carried out by previous Ba’athist regimes, Article 140 calls for a referendum to determine whether the area under dispute will remain under the authority of the national government or the KRG. The al-Maliki government has purposefully delayed its implementation, leading Kurds to view Baghdad with suspicion.
On August 17, General Odierno announced plans for a new security framework intended to pacify the growing sectarian divide in northern Iraq: “What we have is al-Qaeda exploiting this fissure between Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh [Ninawa]…and what we’re trying to do is close that fissure” (Los Angeles Times, August 18).
The proposed security arrangement calls for the formation of a tripartite force – consisting of U.S., Iraqi, and peshmerga soldiers – to patrol the “disputed territories.” The forces would begin deployment in Ninawa and extend to Kirkuk and Diyala province. Though the oil-rich city of Kirkuk is the cornerstone of Article 140, Kurds also lay claim to 30-40 other disputed territories in northern Iraq (Kurdish Globe, December 4, 2008).
The joint military patrols will have two primary goals:
• To serve as a “confidence building measure” for the peshmerga and ISF
• To prevent insurgents from exploiting the issue of “disputed territories” (Asharq al-Awsat, August 19).
By working in unison to protect the local population alongside U.S. forces, the initiative intends to reduce the insecurity and build upon trusting military relationships. In addition, the security arrangement would allow for the return of U.S. combat forces in urban areas where insurgents have successfully carried out high-profile operations.
Today, political support for the proposal is mixed and uncertain, leading Odierno to claim nearly two months after its announcement: “we still have some ways to go” (Reuters, October 5). Key players have agreed on joint patrols in principle in Ninawa alone, but have yet to establish any specifics on their implementation. Although Odierno received initial encouragement from al-Maliki and KRG President Massoud Barzani, growing political opposition has complicated the negotiation process. While the KRG and Ninawa’s Kurdish Fraternal List endorsed the proposal, al-Nujaifi and his ruling Sunni Arab al-Hadbaa coalition in the provincial government opposed the scheme, claiming that only the ISF can legitimately be deployed in the areas under dispute. Kurdish support for the initiative is based on the U.S. military becoming directly involved in resolving Article 140. Besides a variety of political opposition, numerous demonstrations against the proposal have emerged throughout northern Iraq amongst Sunni Arabs and Turcoman residents (Awsat al-Iraq, September 16; Azzaman [Baghdad], October 1; September 8).
In the short-term, the Odierno initiative will likely limit the escalation between Iraqi and peshmerga forces. The return of the U.S. military to the urban combat theater after leaving the cities on June 30 is expected to facilitate cooperation and provide a credible arbiter, in effect reducing the feelings of insecurity between the contending factions.
However, the proposal faces an array of challenges that complicate its implementation and prospects for long-term success. Moreover, political opposition and lack of interest towards implementing the initiative may well persist until January’s parliamentary elections. For example, Prime Minister al-Maliki may be hesitant to push forward on joint patrols in an attempt to reap Sunni Arab support in northern Iraq.
The Odierno initiative is unlikely to solidify any significant level of mutual trust between Iraqi and Kurdish commanders. This is to be expected for two reasons. First, the explicit withdrawal deadlines stipulated in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) render such a task problematic. Assurances of benign intentions are unlikely to establish trust given the current timetable and position that the U.S. military occupies. Second, and more importantly, the dispute over territorial ownership is defined in zero-sum terms by both parties, eroding any level of mutual confidence achieved by the Odierno proposal.
As President Barack Obama seeks to disengage all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by August 2010, unresolved territorial disputes may force a reevaluation of that policy and a renegotiation of the SOFA to allow for a modified U.S. military posture geared towards preventing an Arab-Kurdish civil war.
1. Eric Hamilton, “The Fight for Mosul,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2008, https://www.understandingwar.org/files/reports/The%20Fight%20for%20Mosul.pdf