As U.S. forces begin their pullout from Iraq, tensions between the Kurdish region and Baghdad are rising. A nationwide census, as mandated by the constitution, has been held up again. And the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city claimed by both sides, remains unsettled. But there is reason to be skeptical of the rising tensions.
The Kurds may be overstating the threat posed from Baghdad to keep the American presence in the region. Although their peshmerga is strong, there is concern that the U.S. military is the only thing preventing greater hostilities between the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. That may be overstating things to keep U.S. diplomats in the area to mediate. The Kurds appear to want only peace and prosperity, not full-blown independence, and they reckon the status quo may be better than a future Iraq sans-U.S. forces.
The Maliki government may also be overstating the threat posed from Kurds to whip up Arab and Iraqi nationalism and rally the country around his government. By projecting strength against greater Kurdish autonomy, Maliki can present himself as a tough leader and defender of Iraq, appealing to both Shiite and Sunni alike. This kind of stance also plays well in Tehran, Damascus, and Ankara, as Iraq looks to boost ties with its neighbors, all of which have sizable Kurdish minorities.
Make no mistake, there is real tension between Baghdad and Erbil, but some of it is being manufactured for political reasons and to sway policymakers in Washington.