By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
As tensions mount between Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq, the United Nations has produced an eagerly-awaited special report on the disputed areas there which it hopes will help head off a confrontation.Â
Iraqi Kurds mark the anniversary of the uprising against Saddam Hussein
In the latest signs of hostility between Arabs and Kurds, a Kurdish military commander narrowly escaped death from a roadside bomb explosion and a suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish-manned checkpoint.
Both incidents happened in Zummar, north-west of Mosul.
Zummar is one of a number of Kurdish-dominated areas in Mosul’s Nineveh province which have rejected the authority of the new provincial council, and said they want to join the nearby autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
They complain that majority Sunni Arabs have monopolised all the council’s top positions after provincial elections at the end of January.
Tension is also high in and around the other major northern city, Kirkuk.
Kurds, who are ethnically and linguistically different from Iraq’s majority Arab population, see Kirkuk as their historic capital and would like to attach it to Kurdistan too.
Kirkuk is seen by Kurds as their historic capital
But their claims are opposed by other communities in the city, including Arabs, Turcomans and Christians.
While the Kurds insist on their historic primacy in Kirkuk and its oil-rich province, Saddam Hussein changed the demographic balance by displacing many Kurds and Turcomans and settling large numbers of southern Arabs there.
Under the new Iraqi constitution, the situation in Kirkuk was supposed to be “normalised”, a census taken, and a referendum held, to establish whether the inhabitants wanted to join Kurdistan or stay with Baghdad.
But none of that has happened because of continued tensions and difficulties such as reconciling conflicting property claims.
These are just some of the hot spots on a blurred Arab-Kurdish fault line that runs from the Sinjar area on the Syrian border to the west, all the way across to Khanaqin near the Iranian border to the south-east.
Those areas lie outside the three provinces which make up Iraqi Kurdistan, whose autonomy is recognised by Baghdad.
But the Kurds took advantage of the 2003 invasion to expand their area of de facto control to include mixed areas which they claim are historically Kurdish, but where there are also substantial Arab populations and other minorities.
The new UN report identified 15 “disputed areas” all along the fault line, and examined local conditions in detail.
The report was presented to the Iraqi presidency and government, and to the Kurdish leadership in the north, by the special UN representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura.
It had taken more than a year, and a great deal of expert work, to produce. The report was keenly awaited, as it is the first detailed study of its kind.
“We are all too aware that tensions have recently risen in parts of the disputed areas, and also that there are more issues than just the territorial ones that divide the parties,” said Mr de Mistura after presenting the report to the Iraqi leadership.
“We are hoping that sustained and serious dialogue will now follow.”
Details of the report have not been published. Iraqi leaders are expected to give their observations on it and the UN hopes talks will ensue.
UN officials said the report did not included proposed solutions for the 15 disputed areas, but analysed the situations there and offered detailed suggestions for confidence-building measures to defuse tensions while a settlement is sought.
For Kirkuk, the plan does define four “options” which officials said were designed as “points of departure” for discussion on the province’s political future.
Oil and gas squabbles
Now that most Arab areas of Iraq are much calmer after several years of conflict between Sunnis and Shia, the focus has shifted to the north and fears that Iraq’s future and unity could be jeopardised by a collision between Kurds and Arabs.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been running its own affairs since the early 1990s, with its own government, parliament and international airports.
It has angered Baghdad by signing oil exploration agreements with foreign companies.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki emerged stronger from January’s elections
The two sides have been unable to agree on Iraq’s new oil and gas law, a crucial piece of nation-building legislation, which remains stuck in the national parliament in Baghdad.
The emergence of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, who heads a Shia Arab faction, as something of a strongman especially after the January provincial elections, has aggravated Kurdish fears of domination by a strong, centralised government in Baghdad.
This has led to friction on the ground in the disputed areas between Kurdish “Peshmerga” military forces, and the Iraqi Army.
The independence-minded Kurds struggled for decades against central governments in Baghdad.
In the 1980s tens of thousands died in Saddam Hussein’s campaigns to crush them.
The coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003 allowed the Kurds to consolidate their autonomy in the north, while also enjoying a big share of power in Baghdad, where the president, foreign minister and deputy prime minister are among many Kurds in top jobs.