Implications of the New Kurdish-Sunni Alliance for Security in Iraq’s Ninawa Governorate

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

As the U.S. military “surge” and the activities of Iraq’s Awakening Councils drive al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups into northern Iraq, a new and largely overlooked accord between Kurds and Sunnis could have enormous implications for the security situation in the Ninawa governorate.

On December 24, the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). Though the agreement was grossly underreported in Western media, the event may presage a gradual but significant change in Iraqi politics with great importance for the political security of Ninawa and the rest of northern Iraq: the formation of a Kurdish-Sunni alliance.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President and KDP leader Massoud Barzani, Iraqi President and PUK leader Jalal Talabani and Sunni Vice President and IIP leader Tariq al-Hashimi signed the Kurdish-Sunni tripartite agreement in Irbil (al-Jazeera, December 25, 2007). The talks were the latest in a series of political exchanges between Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Three weeks before the signing of the MoU, the Kurdish list in Kirkuk’s provincial council offered their Sunni counterpart a number of concessions, effectively ending a yearlong political boycott by the Sunni Arabs (PUK Online, December 5, 2007).

The apparent alliance may present a significant step for Iraq’s national reconciliation process. But the agreement may also introduce new security implications in Iraq if the relations between the signatories deepen, especially at the expense of the deteriorating Shiite-Kurdish alliance.

Security Implications in Northern Iraq

In the disputed territories of Iraq where Sunni Arab and Kurdish interests clash, the new alliance could create a backlash and increase violence rather than facilitate cooperation. One of those precarious, ethnically mixed areas is Mosul, the capital of Ninawa province—a northern Iraqi governorate that has been plagued with instability and violence since 2004. In October 2007, Ninawa Governor Muhammad Dreid Kashmoula quit his post declaring, “I am tendering my resignation due to the deteriorating security conditions in Ninawa and the failure to impose security and order” (Aswat al-Iraq, October 12, 2007). His exit came at a time when media reports coming out of Iraq were overwhelmingly positive regarding the regression in violence. In Ninawa, Sunni insurgents have waged a brutal campaign against Mosul’s Kurdish Yazidi community, sometimes killing entire families (Rojnama Kurdish Daily, December 10, 2007). Since 2003, almost 120 Kurdish families have left Mosul (Mydia Kurdish Weekly, January 1). One Sunni militant who had been targeting the province’s Yazidi minority was Hatim Sultan al-Hadidi—a key member of the Islamic State of Iraq—who was arrested by Iraqi soldiers in the al-Zahraa neighborhood of Mosul in December. Last April, Hadidi was responsible for the murders of 23 Yazidi workers in Mosul (Aswat al-Iraq, December 5, 2007).

Some of the violence in Mosul can be attributed to disagreements within the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), a group formed after the U.S.-led invasion as part of the overall insurgency. The organization’s Mosul sector recently split from the Islamic Army of Iraq, renaming their section al-Fatih al-Mubeen, which can mean “the manifest opener” or “the clear conquest” (Azzaman, November 27, 2007). It appears that the formation of al-Fatih al-Mubeen was motivated by the IAI decision to suspend operations against U.S. soldiers to join the efforts of the Coalition in combating al-Qaeda in Iraq. Though the IAI has some Islamist tendencies, the group is largely comprised of Baathists, giving the organization a nationalist orientation. The shared interest in combating the U.S. military presence had helped keep the IAI from fragmenting earlier.

This interest had also been shared by al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the sectarian nature of al-Qaeda’s activities was blamed by many Sunnis for the rise of Shiite militia violence against them. The IAI has had several clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization formed in October 2006 (al-Jazeera, April 12, 2007). Unlike the IAI, al-Fatih al-Mubeen indicated their intent to continue anti-U.S. operations, implying that the pro-U.S. decision on the part of their former comrades was the main factor in contributing to the split. Yet leaflets distributed by members of al-Fatih al-Mubeen officially confirming the separation stated that the splinter group’s formation was not associated with the IAI’s new alliances (Azzaman, November 27, 2007). This would seem to suggest that al-Fatih al-Mubeen could have been formed in consequence of the Islamic Army’s adversarial outlook toward al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq. From this viewpoint, the foundation of al-Fatih al-Mubeen would seem to be inspired by Islamist motivations, rather than Iraqi nationalism.

The interest-based tribal coalition of the al-Anbar Awakening Council had already joined with U.S. forces in combating al-Qaeda in Iraq. Though the Awakening Council contributed positively to the counterinsurgency strategy in marginalizing al-Qaeda’s power in al-Anbar province, the group has quickly come to politically challenge Tariq al-Hashimi’s power as the Sunni figurehead in the Iraqi government. The IIP leader’s reasons for improving relations with the Kurdish parties are essentially two-fold: 1, Hashimi strengthens the Sunni position against the Maliki government through the new alliance, and 2, Hashimi legitimizes his status as a Sunni leader against the rising power of the tribal council in al-Anbar.

According to sources cited by the Sunni Haq News Agency, the agreement between Hashimi and the Kurdish parties stipulates that two-thirds of Ninawa province will be under Kurdish authority in any future federal region (Haq News Agency, December 29, 2007). The Federal Regions Law, passed by the Council of Representatives in October 2006, specifies that Iraq’s 18 provinces may begin to unite and form federal regions beginning in April 2008. The Sunni-Kurdish MoU is also said to completely discard the insertion of Mosul in any newly formed region and rather suggests that two-thirds of the city’s administration will be given to the Kurds, while the remaining one-third will go to Arabs and other ethnic groups (Haq News Agency, December 29, 2007). Though publicly reported, many of the aspects of the MoU, such as those indicated above, are said to be part of an “unpublished” portion of the agreement. If this is the case, Hashimi certainly had good reason to keep such information secret since public knowledge of the vice president’s compromises might create a political backlash from ordinary Sunnis, especially in Ninawa province. If accurate, the sensitivity of these compromises explains Hashimi’s passive rhetoric when describing the MoU with the Kurds: “We don’t want to send the wrong message that this [agreement] is aimed against any specific sides, but is [instead designed] to activate national reconciliation” (al-Sabah, December 26, 2007).

The Sunnis in Ninawa are conscious of any attempts by Kurdish officials to manipulate the Arab makeup of Mosul. Such prospects may motivate the Islamic State of Iraq and the newly formed al-Fatih al-Mubeen to target Hashimi, along with members and facilities associated with his Iraqi Islamic Party. If these “unpublished” concessions are part of the new alliance, they may present a new problem for the United States in maintaining the focus of the Awakening Councils on al-Qaeda. Such aspects may offer an opening to the Islamic Army of Iraq—among others in the tribal coalition—to work again with al-Qaeda in preventing any efforts to implement the “Kurdization” of Ninawa.

Decline in Shiite-Kurdish Relations

The accord’s announcement has come at a delicate time in Shiite-Kurdish relations. In August 2007, the KDP and PUK saved the central government from political paralysis by uniting in a four-party alliance with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party (Aswat al-Iraq, December 25, 2007). Since then, political developments have changed the alliance’s status—perhaps compelling Kurdish leaders to spearhead a strategic relationship with their Sunni Arab counterparts, thus redefining their existing rapport with the Shiite political bloc.

Near-term Kurdish interests are weighted around Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city and the hub of one of Iraq’s largest oil reserves. The December 2007 deadline has passed for the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for the normalization of Kirkuk by assigning the city to either the KRG or the Iraqi central government. Kurdish demands to address Article 140 have been delayed and ignored by Maliki’s government, forcing the Kurds to settle for an agreement in 2008. Arab and Kurdish lawmakers now disagree whether Article 140 is constitutionally valid since the government failed to meet the written deadline. This produced deep dissatisfaction among Kurds with Maliki and the Shiite coalition.

The relationship between Shiites and Kurds has deteriorated since last August’s announcement of the four-party alliance. Growing disputes have forced the Kurdish parties to reevaluate their political relations with the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite bloc in the Council of Representatives. In addition to the dispute over Kirkuk, the issuance of foreign oil contracts has become another point of contention between Shiite and Kurdish officials. The August 2007 passage of the Kurdish oil law by the KRG allowed for agreements with international companies in oil development and production in the Kurdish region without the approval of the central government. The Maliki government views the signing of these independent contracts as a method taken by the KRG to bypass the central government. More recently, al-Talabani questioned the validity of the 1975 Algiers Accord, an agreement dealing with territorial claims between Iraq and Iran, including the Shatt al-Arab waterway (Dar al-Hayat, December 24, 2007). Iran reacted to the comments by demanding that al-Talabani reverse his claims, which he eventually did.

The apparent Kurdish-Sunni alliance may have been formed to send a signal to Maliki that his power as prime minister is contingent on Kurdish participation. This is in fact what Salim Abdullah, a leader in Hashimi’s party, indicated when he suggested Sunnis and Kurds could come together to challenge Shiite preference and power (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 26, 2007). By threatening to ally with the Sunnis and break up the four-party alliance—effectively paralyzing the central government—the Kurdish parties gain political leverage in pressuring Maliki to submit to the KRG’s demands.

Reactivating Shiite Militias?

The prospects of a shift in the Iraqi political power structure may result in severe threats to Iraqi security as each side attempts to regain leverage over the others. The gradual decline in Iraqi and U.S. casualties has much to do with a number of factors in addition to the increase of troop levels. Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has been successful in reining in rogue elements of his Jaysh al-Mahdi militia and maintaining a ceasefire agreement. Recently, reports indicate that Iran has had a positive influence in contributing to the decline of violence in Iraq (IPS, January 2). But the reported successes in the security aspects of the “surge” are largely superficial and contingent on broader political dynamics. Before and during the implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy, the plan for many of the terrorist organizations was to simply become dormant until U.S. troop levels declined. The positive factor represented by the actions of al-Sadr and Iran is temporary and perhaps soon approaching its expiration date. According to U.S. General David Petraeus, the United States is likely to scale down its troop levels soon, leaving the same political void that the strategy was meant to address, consequently welcoming back the violence that was tied to unresolved political issues.

If the new Kurdish-Sunni alliance becomes an obstacle for the Shiite coalition in pressuring the government on the status of Mosul and Kirkuk, it would most likely motivate Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi and Iran to enter the scene—perhaps marked by a heightened level of confrontation with Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, who are present in Baghdad. It will be interesting to watch if the emerging Kurdish-Sunni alliance can mature and prompt these actors to realign the political makeup in Iraq—a prospect that may have local and national consequences in escalating the stakes between Iraqi militias and their affiliated backers in the region.