REPORTS say that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been raising its flags and deploying its military in areas outside of their official borders after US President Barack Obama announced his 18-month scheduled to withdraw the bulk of US soldiers from the country.
The Kurds of northern Iraq a long record of conflict the ousted regime of the late Saddam Hussein. They have been exercising autonomy under US protection from Saddam Hussein's authority since the war over Kuwait in 1991. And since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein, they have also assumed a high-profile role in the central authorities in Baghdad.
They run their own military and has negotiated oil agreements with foreign companies in defiance of the central government. Despite the Iraqi president being a Kurd, relations between the Baghdad government and the KRG are under strain.
The root cause is clear: It is known that the Kurds are marking time to exercise their options and stride towards realising their dreams to set up an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. They have never allowed this goal to get out of their sights and all their decisions and actions have been geared towards this end. They want the oil-rich Kirkuk region to be part of their sought-for state and are steadily bringing out demographic changes in the area to serve this goal.
They now explain that they fear that they would be subjected to persecution by the Shiite-dominated central government after the partial withdrawal of American forces by August 2010, and hence their move to expand their sphere of influence and authority.
Armed Kurdish guards have occupied cities and towns beyond the frontiers of the three- province autonomous zone that is ruled by Kurdish parties under agreement with the central government.
A report quotes a Kurdish military officer as explaining that "Saddam kicked out Kurds, Arabs came in. Kurds are back, Arabs fled. If the Iraqi army comes, they will stab us in the back and expel Kurds again."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki faces a tough challenge from the Kurds, who have a large stockpile of sophisticated weapons and know how to use them effectively. Clearly, the Kurdish moves are in a coalition course with the Maliki government and this could ignite yet another civil war in the country when the Americans leave.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict management advisory group, has warned that opposing territorial claims could lead to military clashes.
"As US forces are set to draw down in the next couple of years, Washington's leverage will diminish and, along with it, chances for a workable deal," the ICG says. "The most likely alternative to an agreement is a new outbreak of violent strife over unsettled claims in a fragmented polity governed by chaos and fear."
Again, the onus is on the US to ensure that this does not happen. Washington, whose support was central to the Kurdish existence as an autonomous state during the Saddam Hussein era, should have the leverage necessary to restrain the Kurds; unless of course the Obama administration backs the disastrous proposal made by Vice-President Joseph Biden three years ago: Split Iraq into three. If Washington does not move with sufficient time in advance and deal with the Kurds, that is the natural inference.