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Iraq's next milestone: the Kurdish question

The survival of the country depends on bridging the Kurd-Arab divide.

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On June 30, Iraq will mark the withdrawal of US combat troops from its cities to surrounding areas. It counts as a major milestone on the road to real Iraqi sovereignty, as well as a point from which to consider the progress made in securing Iraq's future.

In May 2007, as the US troop "surge" was getting under way, 126 US troops were killed in Iraq; last month, it was 25. The comparison for Iraqi troops? 197 versus 39. And for Iraqi civilian deaths? 2,600 versus 340.

The US will still have training forces in cities, but the withdrawal of American combat forces from urban centers sends "a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our internal affairs," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Saturday. He has declared Tuesday a national holiday of feasts and festivals.

Once that day is over, however, Iraq needs to prepare for an arduous journey with less US help. Al Qaeda still lurks. But perhaps more important, so does the unanswered "Kurdish question," which centers on the longstanding Kurdish-Arab conflict.

Tension between Mr. Maliki – an Arab – and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north has escalated significantly in the last year. It touches issues of fundamental importance – national unity, oil wealth, and the balance of power between the central government and the regions. Left unaddressed – or worse, provoked – the Kurd-Arab divide could split the Iraqi state.

A wide swath of disputed territory lies at the heart of the problem. Last August, only direct negotiation between Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Maliki was able to head off a military showdown between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-administered town of Khanaqin.

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