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Daily Column
Iraq Papers Wed: A Wounded Country
Kurdish-Arab Conflicts Proliferate,Oil Contracts to be Handed by the End of June
By AMER MOHSEN 06/23/2009 5:50 PM ET
Iraq witnesses another bloody day in the week preceding the US withdrawal from Iraqi cities and urban centers. Several explosions and attacks on Monday left over 27 Iraqis dead, al-Jazeera reports, including three school children who were killed in a bus transporting them to take their final school exams. On Tuesday, the news channel says, two soldiers were killed in Mosul by gunmen wielding silenced pistols.

And while security events escalate, al-Hayat’s Mushriq 'Abbas pens a report on the fragile state of affairs in Iraq’s provinces after years of sectarian infighting. Al-Hayat’s correspondent crossed the treacherous road that extends between Baghdad and Kirkuk, 300 kilometers that were among the most dangerous in Iraq. 'Abbas notes that the sectarian identity of every village and township can easily be discerned by a passing visitor. Upon entering the village of Jadeedat al-Shatt, a large placard announces: “Badr welcomes you,” a sign that al-Hakeem’s SIIC dominates the Shi'a town. The city of Khalis, on the other hand, is clearly the domain of the Mahdi Army, with its walls adorned by large photos of the “two Sadrs;” while the adjoining town of al-'Azeem expresses its Sunni identity through anti-American slogans and religious preaching that emanates from its stores. In the desert between these villages, “dozens of burned vehicles are strewn on both sides of the road,” a testament to the effect of IEDs.

The hundred kilometers separating Shi'a al-Khalis, Sunni al-'Azeem and the Hamreen mountains were considered a “death zone” for years, 'Abbas says, and the government has made it a priority to secure that road. Checkpoints by the Army, the police and the pro-government “Awakening” militias line up the way, with an outpost containing several soldiers at every kilometer or so. For years, fake checkpoints frequently appeared on that road, murdering Sunnis in al-Khalis, Shi'as in al-'Azeem, “and everyone in Hamreen.”

Relations between these towns remain extremely tense after years of mutual murders and expulsion; Sunni al-'Azeem played the role of the “counterbalance” to Shi'a al-Khalis, with deadly results. While the traumatized populace has accepted that sectarian slaughters should stop, “enmity between the two towns has reached the level of rupture,” the journalist recounts, “local notables and leaders, many of whom have lost children and relatives ... have not surpassed that era.”

The Americans are also present on the highway, and an American officer whose patrol stopped due to a mechanical failure apologized to the journalist after one of his soldiers attempted to arrest him for “smiling” at the American who was nervously pointing his gun at the passing cars.

'Abbas’ final destination was the Turkoman town of Taza, where a massive explosion last Saturday killed over 73 civilians and injured several hundreds. The power of the explosion, which demolished an entire district of the town, prompted its people to demand that their village be considered a “disaster zone,” “it looks as if an earthquake struck the decrepit buildings (of Taza) and turned them into ruins,” 'Abbas recounts.

In other news, the Oil Ministry decided to go ahead and offer eight of Iraq’s largest oil fields to foreign companies at the end of the month, Az-Zaman reports. The controversial move is sure to flare a crisis with the Kurdistan government, whose Prime Minister described the decision as “unconstitutional and against the interests of the people.” Oil Minister Husain al-Shahrastani said that the coming round of licenses will pertain to oil and gas fields that are already producing, with the aim of maintaining and increasing output, pointing that additional rounds will be dispensed in the near future for untapped reserves. The paper said that the development contracts that will be awarded at the end of the month will include several giants: al-Zubair, Qurna West, north and south Rumaila, in addition to Kirkuk.

Also in Az-Zaman, a Sadrist “mediation” that attempted to soften the conflict between the Arabs and Kurds of Mosul has apparently failed. Both sides have refused to show much elasticity, the paper claimed, with Kurdish leaders insisting that the Arab coalition (which won the recent provincial elections, and subsequently excluded Kurds from the top posts in the governorate) concede several positions before ending their boycott of the provincial council. The Arab leaders, on the other hand, insist that the conflict “is not over positions” and that Kurdish parties should accept the principle that the provincial council is the sole authority in the counties of the governorate.

Escalation occurred, the paper recounts, when the local leader of the KDP ordered teachers and administrators in a country bordering Mosul (but under Kurdish Peshmerga control and with a Yezedi majority) to stop instructing students in Arabic in the county’s schools.


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