Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's talks with U.S. President Barack Obama this week were expected to address long-term political issues and focus on building national unity between Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities.
Obama's administration is eager to promote political reconciliation in Iraq ahead of parliamentary elections in the country's Kurdish autonomous region. That July 25 vote will determine whether Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party leads any future negotiations between Kurdish authorities and Baghdad over long-standing differences.
A key issue in the Washington talks is a potentially destructive conflict that is rising between Iraq's federal government and Barzani's Kurdish regional administration over disputed territory in four northern provinces with ethnically and religiously mixed populations -- including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
"The main problem is that there are political differences between the political blocs about division of authority and resources [and about] the problem of Kirkuk and other disputed areas," Younadem Kana, an Iraqi Christian lawmaker and a member of the Iraqi parliament's commission on elections in Kirkuk, tells RFE/RL. "These problems are the enemies of political process and process of democratization. And they can be used by the terrorists or some other national or religious extremists."
The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Ayad al-Samarai, has acknowledged it will be difficult to put end to rivalries and divisions that have blocked vital energy legislation for years and which could delay national elections in Iraq that are scheduled for January.
Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program, says Iraqi leaders and Washington must manage the increasing tensions or face the likelihood of deadly violence as U.S. troops are pulled out.
"President Obama has been very clear about the need to find a solution to the question of Kirkuk and other disputed territories," Hiltermann says. "This is what is at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq. There are many difficult issues that need to be resolved. But the conflict between the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government is at the heart of it. And the Kirkuk question has to be addressed head on. And I think that when President Obama meets with Prime Minister al-Maliki this week, this is going to be very high on the agenda."
The International Crisis Group says the ultimate deal would be a "grand bargain" on three divisive issues -- whether Kirkuk and other disputed territories are incorporated into the autonomous Kurdish region, how oil revenues should be disbursed under a federal hydrocarbons law, and how to divide power so there is consensus between Irbil and Baghdad on amending Iraq's constitution.
"What the Maliki government is looking for is some kind of sign that this full-throated support [from the United States] for the Kurds in the past is going to decrease a bit, and that President Barzani is told that, in fact, his quest to incorporate Kirkuk into the [Kurdish] region is an unrealistic one," Hiltermann says. "It is not one that can be attained at this stage. And that negotiations that are called for. If that message is conveyed clearly and unequivocally to President Barzani, then the Maliki government would be more willing to engage in negotiations over the disputed territories."
For his part, Barzani has been campaigning on the promise that there will be "no compromise" with Baghdad over the demand that Kirkuk be incorporated into the autonomous Kurdish region.
Hiltermann says that position may win support for Barzani's allies from Kurdish voters. But it is unlikely that Kirkuk will come under the Kurdish regional government's authority without some kind of military conflict between Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia.
"The current process under the constitution is very unlikely to delivery that result," Hiltermann says of the prospects of Kirkuk under the Kurdish authority. "You can make that claim. But we need to find a viable way of actually determining the status of Kirkuk. And the moment you have a viable process, it is going to have to be based on some kind of negotiated political agreement between all sides. And that almost automatically will require compromise. And once we are talking about compromise, then it is very unlikely that Kirkuk would fall within the Kurdistan region."
Tensions Elsewhere, Too
In Iraq's Nineveh Province, which includes the oil-processing center of Mosul, Kurds have threatened to split the province in two over a dispute with the Arab-dominated ruling council. Kurdish residents claim that parts of Arab-majority Nineveh province belong to their ancient homeland. They want those areas to be incorporated into the Kurdistan region.
The Kurdish parliament last month approved a draft constitution that would include parts of Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces within the definition of Kurdistan.
The lawmakers wanted a referendum on their draft to be conducted along with the July 25 election. But the referendum has been pushed back indefinitely, reportedly under U.S. pressure, after a visit to Iraq by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in early July.
"We are at the point where the actions of loose-cannon commanders could actually be very informative in this next few months as these tensions progress, as terrorist groups feed into destabilizing the situation, and as Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi politicians and Kurdish politicians not only move from the municipal and governorate elections which we are seeing now that are happening in Kurdistan, but move to national and presidential elections [in January 2010]," Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Kurdish affairs at Chatham House and the director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, says. "That's when the pressure really starts to become very apparent indeed."
Stansfield says many political players -- including Shi'a and Sunni Arabs in Iraq as well as authorities in neighboring Iran and Turkey -- worry that the Kurdish demands may be a precursor to an attempt to set up an independent Kurdish state.
He says he thinks the concerns of NATO-member Turkey are factored into U.S. foreign policy. But he says Iraqi Kurdish officials have been trying to improve their ties with Ankara to alleviate problems with Turkey:
"With regard to Kurdistan, including the ongoing dispute over the hydrocarbons law and especially the status of the disputed territories -- the so-called disputed internal boundary -- the Kurdish position is that they cling to constitutionality," Stansfield says. "They portray the actions of Maliki as being aggressive -- and also the governor of Nineveh as being very aggressive against them. And at the same time, they've managed to build what I think are increasingly durable links with Turkey. So we don't see the same animosity toward the Kurdistan region or its actions emanating from Ankara anymore. As long as Turkey remains reasonably OK with what Kurdish politicians in Iraq are doing, then the Americans I don't think are all that concerned."
Hopes For A Breakthrough
Stansfield says he is optimistic that the longstanding differences between Kurdish authorities and Baghdad can be overcome.
"I can imagine some sort of deal," Stansfield says. "Not necessarily the 'grand bargain' that the International Crisis Group has developed, but certainly some sort of deal that is built around a hydrocarbons law [and] built around how to manage Kirkuk. And then that leads into the territorial division between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq. There are possibilities here. But these politics have been played out in what is a tremendously sensitized political and military stage right now in these disputed territories."
But Stansfield disagrees with Iraqi politicians who say the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will create an opportunity for the reconciliation of differences.
"The withdrawal of American forces from cities and from Kirkuk, from Mosul, and from other places has probably heightened tensions between Kurdish forces and Iraqi forces," he says. "Previously, it was the United States that brokered a standing down of military forces between the Kurdish Regional Government and Iraqi government that could have escalated into a very nasty conflict indeed. That dynamic doesn't exist in the same way as it did then. Rather than seeing the Americans leaving as being the removal of a catalyst of conflict between these two groups, I actually see it as the opposite. I see it as a heightening of the possibility of either an Iraqi military commander or Peshmerga commander thinking that they could take advantage of the situation and attack the other. I think that possibility becomes much greater when the American's are not there."
Ultimately, experts say, the ability of Kurdish authorities and Baghdad to resolve their disputes without resorting to military conflict will test whether Iraq's many ethnic and religious communities can live together under a federal system of government.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report from Prague and Baghdad