BAGHDAD // The suicide car bomb killed five people, including two of US soldiers, and convinced Mahmoud Dawoud, among others, that the situation in Diyala province was darkening once again.
The attack of June 11, in the town of Jalawla, 85km north-east of Baghdad, was the worst suffered by the US military in more than two months. Critically, it was just one in a growing number of destabilising incidents taking place along the so-called trigger line, the ethnically mixed zone inhabited by Iraq's Kurds and Arabs, and coveted by both. "It alarmed the Kurdish people here," said Mr Dawoud, 29, a resident of Jalawla and himself a Kurd. "After the bomb we saw that the Iraqi security forces are not strong enough and more of us are asking for the Kurdish government to come down and give protection, to send in the Peshmerga."
Any such deployment by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Peshmerga troops - the soldiers of its independent army - would be an act of political dynamite. The KRG remains in dispute with the national government over large swathes of territory, including the oil rich city of Kirkuk, and the Baghdad authorities would certainly see new movements of Kurdish forces as a land grab. Controversially, the KRG already has Peshmerga stationed outside of its three autonomously governed northern provinces, including areas of Kirkuk, Ninewah and Diyala. While supported by local Kurds, their presence is a source of deep friction with nationalist Arabs, who view it as a prelude to Kurdish secession from Iraq.
The authorities in Baghdad have deployed Iraqi army units across the breadth of the country to prevent a further spread of Kurdish-controlled troops in the south. Peshmerga units were once stationed in Jalawla but replaced by the Iraqi army more than two years ago. The recent bombings, however, combined with the plans by the US to scale back its role in Iraq, have left the town's Kurds fearful. "The Kurdish here are a soft target, we are not safe anymore, and Baghdad is not capable of protecting us," said Mr Dawoud. "When the Peshmerga left, a hole developed in security and it has been filled by al Qa'eda. We need the Peshmerga back." Jalawla's unease is symptomatic of the continued rift between Iraq's Arab majority and its minority Kurds, and reflects a schism that both sides believe is being exploited by al Qa'eda, intent on sparking a new civil war.
If that is the extremists' goal, it is one they may be able to reach, Arab and Kurd leaders warn. "There is a feeling that al Qa'eda failed to make another civil war between Shiite and Sunni [Arabs], so they are turning their attention to making war between Kurds and Arabs," said Anwar Mikael, the Kurdish mayor of Jalawla. In staging murderous attacks such as the June 11 bombing, insurgents were successfully adding to mutual mistrust, Mr Mikael said, and driving a deeper wedge between the communities.
"There are now more accusations being cast by both sides than before," he explained in a telephone interview. "The Kurds say the Arabs are supporting al Qa'eda and trying to push them out. There is a lot of anger and there are calls [from the Kurds] to get the KRG to come and deal with security. "The Arabs say the opposite; that the Kurds are behind various assassinations and are secretly supporting al Qa'eda to further their political aims."
In the weeks since the Jalawla bombing, there have been dozens of insurgent actions in Diyala, Kirkuk and Ninewah - the areas of Arab-Kurd dispute. Bombings, drive-by shootings, executions and grenade attacks have killed and injured scores of police, soldiers and civilians. "It is certainly al Qa'eda's plan to make an Arab-Kurd war and they will find it easier to do that than they did in starting a Shiite-Sunni war [among the Arabs]," said Abu Said al Ukarthe, an Arab tribal leader from southern Kirkuk. "They have planned it well, they assassinate people from both sides and create distrust and division.
"The Arabs turn against the Kurds, the Kurds turn against the Arabs, they set both sides against one another." Mr al Ukarthe, a leader of the US-allied Sahwa tribal movement, said failures to achieve political reconciliation had given extremists room to manoeuvre and cautioned that a "huge war" could break out if the Arab-Kurd issue was not quickly resolved at a national level. "It is essential that Arab and Kurdish leaders sit down and talk frankly with one another and sort this matter out," he said. "Otherwise the problems will be exploited and they will get worse."
In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the Kurds enjoyed a power disproportionate to their numbers, a consequence of Kurdish unity, strong political organisation and intra-Arab divisions. The Kurds were kingmakers in the last government and managed to gain control of both Ninewah and Kirkuk provincial councils where, their critics allege, they showed scant interest in sharing the spoils. Their power has since been ebbing, however, with Arab nationalists taking over the administration of Ninewah and performing strongly in Kirkuk at the March 7 elections, taking half of the province's 12 parliamentary seats.
That has led to new frictions, with Iraqi nationalists accusing the Kurds of refusing to acknowledge the new political reality and share power. The United Nations has been involved in mediation efforts between Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurd's administrative capital, but there has been no breakthrough as yet. Protracted political wrangling after the March elections has done little to move the issue closer to resolution.
"Insurgent groups - al Qa'eda, the Baathists and the Naqishbandi Army - are working together in these [disputed] areas to try and make an Arab-Kurd war," said Abdel Salam Juma'a al Burhadini, an independent political analyst who has studied the issue.
He agreed that in the absence of Arab-Kurd political reconciliation, extremists had a golden opportunity to spark a war.
"That is their aim and, so far, they are on the path to success and they could succeed by the time the Americans pull-out. There is more [Arab-Kurd] division now than before, there is anger on both sides."