* Kurds worry over territorial claims without U.S. presence
* Gov't critics say U.S. troops halt authoritarian trend
By Namo Abdulla
BAGHDAD, June 30 (Reuters) - More than eight years after the
U.S. invasion, Iraqis are debating whether to ask American
troops to stay on past a planned withdrawal, a sensitive
question that is testing its fragile power-sharing government.
Kurdistan is a potential flashpoint for tensions among
ethnic Kurds, Turkmen and Iraqi Arabs, and most of its residents
say U.S. troops should remain after the end of this year to keep
apart rival groups making claims on the oil-wealthy territory.
But the semi-autonomous region's opposition leaders and
government critics also say U.S. troops will halt a creeping
return to the authoritarian past. Kurdistan's ruling parties
sent troops in April to smother protests demanding political
change and more democratic freedom.
"The withdrawal of U.S. troops will bring nothing but
disaster," said Asos Hardi, director of Awene, an independent
newspaper in Kurdistan. "There is a danger of civil war, there
is a danger for some forces to return to the past."
The remaining 47,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to
leave by the end of this year when a security pact finishes and
U.S. officials say Iraq's government must ask soon if they want
the troops to stay on.
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply from the bloody days of
sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007. Iraq says local forces can
contain a weakened but stubborn Sunni insurgency and Shi'ite
militias, although they acknowledge there are gaps in their
But tensions are high along Kurdistan's "Green Line" between
Iraq and the semi-autonomous region, where U.S. troops have
organized joint checkpoints with Iraqi Arab soldiers and Kurdish
Peshmerga troops in an attempt to build confidence.
The two forces have clashed in the past only to pull back
after the intervention of U.S. forces.
"This issue is about the future of Iraq," Nechirvan Barzani,
deputy chairman of the co-ruling KDP party, told London-based
Arabic newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.
Kurds have enjoyed special ties with the United States since
Washington and other Western powers provided a no-fly zone to
protect them in 1991 after Saddam Hussein's genocidal campaign
against the minority group during the 1980s.
Since then the Kurds have enjoyed a de facto independence
that was bolstered when Saddam was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led
invasion of Iraq, allowing them a larger share of the country's
oil wealth in the north.
Compared with the rest of Arab Iraq, Kurdistan's capital
Arbil has more U.S.-style shopping malls, fast-food restaurants
and five-star hotels because the region enjoys greater economic
stability than the rest of the country.
Kurdish leaders say they have more to lose should U.S.
troops depart without Iraqi Kurdistan's status within Iraq being
"As long as there is no political solution, which will not
be anytime soon, these tensions could easily escalate into a
serious conflict. I think it would be better for the U.S.
military to stay, but they are not going to stay," said Joost
Hiltermann at the International Crisis Group in Brussels.
Inside Kurdistan, local opposition leaders say a continued
American presence would halt what they regard as the growing
authoritarianism of the KDP party of Kurdish President Massoud
Barzani and the PUK party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
In April, the Kurdish government sent troops to quell a
two-month-long protest that called for more democracy. At least
10 people died in the protests. Rights groups criticised Kurdish
authorities for using excessive force against protesters.
"Until Kurdish security forces become institutionalised and
are run by the Kurdish government, rather than the political
parties, there is always a chance of these forces being used by
the ruling parties against their rivals," Shorsh Haji, a senior
leader of the Kurdish main opposition party of Gorran.
"Establishing a U.S. military base would be good for the
future of Kurdistan and defend it from outside forces," he said,
referring to neighbours Iran and Turkey who have shelled Iraqi
Kurdish borders in the past to hit Kurdish rebels.
Abubakir Ali, a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the
area's most popular Islamic party, said its Islamic ideology did
not prevent it from having political ties with the U.S.
government. He said Washington was an essential ally.
For others like Hardi, a prominent Kurdish writer who has
founded two independent newspapers in Kurdistan, U.S. troops
guarantee a certain freedom.
"Even with the presence of Americans our freedoms are being
curtailed," he said. "Imagine what will happen if they leave."
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Robert Woodward)
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