Powder Keg: Kurds in Iraq encroach on Arab enclaves

This is a problem that has been simmering for years and is the next big challenge for the Iraqi government.

The Kurds and their tough, well trained military the pesh merga, have been quietly moving out of their autonomous region in the north and have virtually taken over several ethnically mixed towns and villages in provinces that border their territory.

I have written before about the tension in Kirkuk between Kurds and Arabs with violence occassionally breaking out between the two sides. The Kurds claim Kirkuk because so much of their oil wealth goes through the city while the Arabs see the entire area as part of their territory. The Kurds also believe they have a historic claim to the region, having been driven out of these ethnically mixed areas by Saddam Hussein many years ago.

But the Kurdish incursion goes far beyond Kirkuk as this article in the Washington Post makes clear:

Kurdish leaders have expanded their authority over a roughly 300-mile-long swath of territory beyond the borders of their autonomous region in northern Iraq, stationing thousands of soldiers in ethnically mixed areas in what Iraqi Arabs see as an encroachment on their homelands.

The assertion of greater Kurdish control, which has taken hold gradually since the war began and caused tens of thousands of Arabs to flee their homes, is viewed by Iraqi Arab and U.S. officials as a provocative and potentially destabilizing action.

"Quickly moving into those areas to try and change the population and flying KRG flags in areas that are specifically not under the KRG control right now -- that is counterproductive and increases tensions," said Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, referring to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which administers the autonomous region.

The pesh merga have set up road blocks, taken over police and army facilities, and generally sought to expand their influence beyond their own autonomous region. It has given Prime Minister Maliki one more headache to deal with as tensions are now rising with Maliki's dispatch of the Iraqi army to dislodge the pesh merga and send them back home:

The predominantly Arab-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent weeks has sent the Iraqi army to drive Kurdish forces out of some of the lands, ordering Kurdish troops, known as pesh merga, to retreat north of the boundary of the Kurdish autonomous region.

The face-off between the Iraqi army and pesh merga has stoked fears of Arab-Kurdish strife just as Iraqis begin to recover from years of sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

A week-long journey across four provinces that abut the southern boundary of the autonomous region illustrated just how pervasive the Kurdish presence has become. Pesh merga fighters were seen manning 34 checkpoints, most of them proudly flying the Kurdish flag, some as far as 75 miles south of the regional border. Kurds say they have historical claims to the territory, citing then-President Saddam Hussein's use of violence and coercion to drive Kurds from their lands in the 1970s.

This situation bears watching in the near future. Hopefully, the government will be able to convince the Kurds to negotiate any increase in land they desire and not have the pesh merga simply sieze what they wish. Such a provocative policy can only lead to violence.