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DEBKAfile Special Report
What does 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.
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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. . . 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.
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.