Please Don't Go, Iraqi Kurds Tell U.S. Troops

Thursday, 30 June 2011 07:43 AM

* Kurds worry over territorial claims without U.S. presence

* Gov't critics say U.S. troops halt authoritarian trend

By Namo Abdulla

BAGHDAD, June 30 (Reuters) - More than eight years after the U.S. invasion, Iraqis are debating whether to ask American troops to stay on past a planned withdrawal, a sensitive question that is testing its fragile power-sharing government.

Kurdistan is a potential flashpoint for tensions among ethnic Kurds, Turkmen and Iraqi Arabs, and most of its residents say U.S. troops should remain after the end of this year to keep apart rival groups making claims on the oil-wealthy territory.

But the semi-autonomous region's opposition leaders and government critics also say U.S. troops will halt a creeping return to the authoritarian past. Kurdistan's ruling parties sent troops in April to smother protests demanding political change and more democratic freedom.

"The withdrawal of U.S. troops will bring nothing but disaster," said Asos Hardi, director of Awene, an independent newspaper in Kurdistan. "There is a danger of civil war, there is a danger for some forces to return to the past."

The remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of this year when a security pact finishes and U.S. officials say Iraq's government must ask soon if they want the troops to stay on.

Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply from the bloody days of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007. Iraq says local forces can contain a weakened but stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite militias, although they acknowledge there are gaps in their capabilities.

But tensions are high along Kurdistan's "Green Line" between Iraq and the semi-autonomous region, where U.S. troops have organized joint checkpoints with Iraqi Arab soldiers and Kurdish Peshmerga troops in an attempt to build confidence.

The two forces have clashed in the past only to pull back after the intervention of U.S. forces.

"This issue is about the future of Iraq," Nechirvan Barzani, deputy chairman of the co-ruling KDP party, told London-based Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.


Kurds have enjoyed special ties with the United States since Washington and other Western powers provided a no-fly zone to protect them in 1991 after Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign against the minority group during the 1980s. Since then the Kurds have enjoyed a de facto independence that was bolstered when Saddam was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, allowing them a larger share of the country's oil wealth in the north. Compared with the rest of Arab Iraq, Kurdistan's capital Arbil has more U.S.-style shopping malls, fast-food restaurants and five-star hotels because the region enjoys greater economic stability than the rest of the country.

Kurdish leaders say they have more to lose should U.S. troops depart without Iraqi Kurdistan's status within Iraq being clearly defined.

"As long as there is no political solution, which will not be anytime soon, these tensions could easily escalate into a serious conflict. I think it would be better for the U.S. military to stay, but they are not going to stay," said Joost Hiltermann at the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

Inside Kurdistan, local opposition leaders say a continued American presence would halt what they regard as the growing authoritarianism of the KDP party of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and the PUK party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

In April, the Kurdish government sent troops to quell a two-month-long protest that called for more democracy. At least 10 people died in the protests. Rights groups criticised Kurdish authorities for using excessive force against protesters.

"Until Kurdish security forces become institutionalised and are run by the Kurdish government, rather than the political parties, there is always a chance of these forces being used by the ruling parties against their rivals," Shorsh Haji, a senior leader of the Kurdish main opposition party of Gorran.

"Establishing a U.S. military base would be good for the future of Kurdistan and defend it from outside forces," he said, referring to neighbours Iran and Turkey who have shelled Iraqi Kurdish borders in the past to hit Kurdish rebels.

Abubakir Ali, a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the area's most popular Islamic party, said its Islamic ideology did not prevent it from having political ties with the U.S. government. He said Washington was an essential ally. For others like Hardi, a prominent Kurdish writer who has founded two independent newspapers in Kurdistan, U.S. troops guarantee a certain freedom.

"Even with the presence of Americans our freedoms are being curtailed," he said. "Imagine what will happen if they leave." (Editing by Patrick Markey and Robert Woodward)

© 2018 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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* Kurds worry over territorial claims without U.S. presence * Gov't critics say U.S. troops halt authoritarian trend By Namo Abdulla BAGHDAD, June 30 (Reuters) - More than eight years after the U.S. invasion, Iraqis are debating whether to ask American troops to stay on...
Thursday, 30 June 2011 07:43 AM
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