What does Gush Katif, Gaza, Have in Common with Kirkuk?

The Washington-Jerusalem track has generated a sudden spurt of activity after several sluggish months. Three administration officials are heading for Jerusalem to examine the details of the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral evacuation plans, indicating that cold US disapproval has made way for a spark of interest. Stephen Hadley, deputy head of the National Security Council, Elliot Abrams, NSC member and William Burns, State Department Middle East emissary, will therefore present themselves to Sharon on Thursday, February 19, for some rapid-fire questions and answers. They will also lay down certain conditions.
Last December, Sharon unveiled a go-it-alone proposal – more a concept than a plan – to withdraw some settlers from parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and unilaterally mark a temporary boundary between Israel and the West Bank. He said these steps would go into effect if efforts to restart peace talks failed and if Washington agreed. He warned the Palestinians that if this happened, they would end up with less land than if they had entered into negotiations on the basis of the road map.
Two weeks ago, he followed this announcement up with a more specific statement of intent to uproot 17 of the 19 Jewish communities of the Gaza Strip and an unspecified number on West Bank – again without waiting for the Palestinians to have their say.
At first, the Bush administration looked askance at the Israeli leader’s unilateralism. But last week, it looked as though it might come round to some of its aspects. Secretary of state Colin Powell said the pullout from Gaza could help break the impasse blocking peace talks, but Sharon’s plan needed to be better understood. The State Department spokesman said the Israeli pullout from Gaza could reduce frictions and open the way to peace talks.
The Palestinians are aghast. They see a solution dictated instead of negotiated by the usual wheeling and dealing and the state envisioned by the US president George W. Bush shrinking in size. Israel’s pro-settlement movement representing a quarter of a million Jews living across the Green Line is drawing up lines of battle. It is represented in the Sharon government and enjoys a degree of popular support although this has never been reliably measured.
Whether or not the Bush administration goes along with the Sharon approach depends on the report submitted by the American trio.
debkafile‘s Washington sources report that the three are determined to keep their fact-finding sessions short and incisive, mainly to avoid being blinded with arcane detail. They will try and stick to essentials, make certain limitations clear to the Israeli prime minister, and fill in the large gaps in their understanding of his intentions – and not only in theirs. For instance, no one in Israel or the United States is clear on the final route of the security fence Israel is building to keep West Bank terrorists out. Construction has slowed down and the Sharon government appears to have straightened out some of the loops into the West Bank. The US officials will want to be assured that all these enclaves are ironed out, including the one protecting the Jordan Rift Valley communities, along a line which all Israeli governments have categorized as its eastern security border, in keeping with UN Security Council resolution 242.
This may be found to be in conflict with the Bush vision of the shape of a Palestinian state.
The American officials will also want to hear about the disposition of the 7,500 Jewish inhabitants of the Gaza Strip after their evacuation and insist they are not relocated on the West Bank. The problem here is that, even if the evacuees agree to leave their Gaza homes and accept compensation – which is far from the case at the moment – there may be no legal way to restrict their next movements.
Another big gap relates to the military posts in the Gaza Strip after the civilians are gone. Sharon spoke of evacuation – not withdrawal. Defense minister Shaul Mofaz has said they must stay as long as a war situation exists with the Palestinians. Total military withdrawal would abandon the territory to Hamas rule and its unfettered use as a jumping off base for continuing suicide attacks against Israel.
According to debkafile‘s Jerusalem sources, these questions will be addressed seriously by the prime minister’s office, which appreciates that the makeup of the delegation and Hadley’s presence means it will report directly to the White House. Approval of the Sharon initiative would go far to warming up some of the recent coolness between Washington and Jerusalem.
Over to Kirkuk
From the American point of view, its awakened interest in the removal of Gaza Strip settlements happens to coincide with a much larger challenge to its Iraq master plan, one that is rearing up 1,200 km northeast of Gush Katif at Iraq’s biggest oil city, Kirkuk, whose population of 700,000 is roughly one hundred times that of Gaza’s Jewish community.
Around 270,000, some 40 percent of Kirkuk’s inhabitants are Kurds, 28 percent (200,000) Sunni Muslim Arabs and the remaining 30 percent, Assyrians and Turkomen.
Kirkuk was originally more than half Kurdish. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein transferred more than 120,000 Kurds from the city and dumped them in the northern semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in revenge for the protection extended by the UN and its declaration as a no fly zone closed to Iraqi aircraft. The Iraqi ruler awarded the Kurds’ homes to a similar number of Sunni Arabs who were the mainstay of his regime and made them the new masters of the oil city.
Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, some 200,000 Kurds, including those Saddam displaced, have crowded into the towns and villages around Kirkuk. The former dwellers are waiting to repossess their old homes, their number topped up by the two leading Kurdish parties, the PUK and the PDK, who want to make sure of re-establishing a Kurdish majority in the oil city.
At first there were some clashes between returning Kurds and the Sunni occupants of their former homes. Fearing wholesale ethnic bloodshed, the Americans acted to check a Kurdish surge into by setting up roadblocks on its outskirts.
However, as the June 30 date for transferring sovereignty to the Iraqis approaches, the Kirkuk crisis is coming to a head. debkafile‘s Iraq sources report that the Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani are now cautioning American officials that their support for the US presence and Washington’s plans for the country would drop from its current level if they continue to prevent the 200,000 waiting Kurds from moving into Kirkuk. This support is critical. US intelligence work in Iraq and neighboring Turkey and Iran relies heavily on Kurdish undercover resources, especially the Talabani’s PUK agency headed by Kosrat Rasul. This Kurdish spy chief played a key role in the capture of Saddam Hussein and the location of his sons whom the Americans killed.
According to debkafile‘s Washington sources, the Kurdish warning has kept the midnight oil burning in the White House for emergency consultations on ways and means of relocating the Sunnis to placate the Kurds without sparking serious ethnic instability.
Some parts of the administration vigorously oppose any population shift lest it trigger civil strife that would ultimately drag in the Shiites and put up backs in the Arab world. Other circles, led by the Pentagon, argue that it is past time to start reshaping Iraqi government and this cannot be done without population transfers in certain places – in a word, without dividing the country up into three sections, the Kurds in the north, the Shiites in the south, loose federal government in Baghdad and the Sunni Muslims in the center. The Turkomen and Assyrian enclaves would separate the main blocks of territory. Advocates of this plan see Kirkuk as a sort of pilot project or laboratory for testing population reorganization on a national scale.
So Sharon’s plan to evacuate Israelis from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank has come to be seen in Washington as relevant to its larger schemes. Some US officials suggest it may provide a convenient reply to potential critics, especially in Arab quarters, of any wholesale displacement of Sunni Arabs out of Kirkuk. The Bush administration, they say, will be able to answer back that it also approved the evacuation of Jewish dwellers from Arab land – especially if the two steps take place at roughly the same time. This hypothesis, which may have smoothed the path for Sharon’s return to the good graces of the Bush White House, presupposes that the two population dislocations are feasible. That is still a very far cry.

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