IN a highly disturbing development that occurred in April but was reported by the media last month, over 1,000 Kurdish soldiers of the Iraqi army refused to fight for the defence of a town which was under attack from Sunni Arab gunmen, and refused re-training intended as a punishment.

The town was Sulaiman Bek, which is in a swathe of territory claimed by both the Baghdad government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The 1,072 Kurdish soldiers of the 16th Brigade mutinied, saying they didn’t wish to take part in fighting to avoid exacerbating the already tense relations between Arabs and Kurds in the ‘disputed’ territory.

Since then, the soldiers have not been receiving money and ration from the Iraqi army, and -- more astonishingly – they are now being paid by the KRG’s Peshmerga ministry. (Peshmerga, the former Kurdish rebel militia during the Saddam regime, has now been merged with Kurdistan’s security forces.)

Post-Saddam Iraq’s constitution is a delicate ethnic, sectarian patchwork, like that of Lebanon. But, unlike the Lebanese army, the Iraqi armed forces are considered a national asset, because in all the wars Iraq fought, the armed forces maintained unity and discipline.

But April’s mutiny and the decision by the Peshmerga ministry to pay the ‘mutineers’ are developments that could have far-reaching consequences for Iraq and the region.

Profiting, no doubt, from the failure of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s government to give stability to Iraq, the KRG leadership has moved with speed to consolidate its position. Its first major move toward autonomy came in May 2007 when it took over security responsibility directly from American forces in three of its provinces. Today, it has its own flag, and the KRG leadership has seriously annoyed the Maliki government by getting in touch with Western multinationals directly to sell oil.

The timing of the mutiny is most unfortunate: it comes at a time when Turkey has for the first time in 30 years made serious moves to solve the three-decade old Kurdish insurgency in its south-east by peaceful means. Enjoying the blessings of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan – Apo, to his followers -- the peace agreement between Ankara and Kurdish militants led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party went into effect in May. The symbolic date is May 8, when the withdrawal began, but it should take three to four months for the pullout to be complete.

The guerillas’ ‘return’ has been described by the Maliki government as a “flagrant violation” of Iraq’s sovereignty. This looks absurd when we realise that Turkey already has a military presence in Kurdistan by virtue of a 1995 agreement with the Saddam government. The Iraqi cabinet has decided to abolish this treaty but has not yet been successful in getting the parliament to repeal it. A unilateral repeal of a bilateral treaty will obviously further strain Baghdad’s already tense relations with Ankara.

TURKISH FACTOR: Here things get muddied, making us wonder what Recep Tayyip Erdogan (the Turkish premier) is up to. The Kurdistan government, headed by Massoud Barzani, is on a collision course with Baghdad, and Ankara seems to be throwing its weight behind the KRG. Irritated by the lingering dispute with the central government over the shares of oil revenue, Kurdistan has begun dealing directly with foreign firms, doling out contracts more lucrative than those Baghdad offers. No wonder, more than 50 Western companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total, are hunting for oil despite retaliatory threats by the Maliki government.

The latest to join this open-door policy is a Turkish firm in partnership with ExxonMobil. This is part of the Erdogan government’s policy of seeking greater economic integration with Kurdistan. This has puzzled Turkey observers.

As in Turkey and Iraq, so in Iran, the Kurds are a persecuted minority. An independent Kurdish state – the so-called Mahabad Republic, founded in 1946 by Iranian Kurdish leaders Qazi Mohammad and Mustafa Barzani -- was crushed by Tehran, with Barzani fleeing to the Soviet Union.

A prosperous, motivated and sovereign ‘Iraqi’ Kurdistan could accentuate fissiparous tendencies in Iran and Turkey and perhaps touch off a process of fragmentation that could rock the entire region. What suits Turkey is a stable and friendly Iraq, and Mr Erdogan could advance this cause by improving his relations with the Maliki government and using its influence with the KRG to help the two sides develop a modus vivendi within the framework of an organically united Iraqi state. This will give Turkey two priceless advantages – a friendly and stable Iraq in its south-east and plentiful supplies of oil from the immediate neighbourhood.

The writer is a staff member

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