“When the fighting breaks out between Arabs and Kurds, whose side will the Americans be on?” This was the message that Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), instructed his chief of staff to have me convey to senior U.S. officials in Baghdad in 2010. I was serving as the political adviser to General Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. Nuri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq, and Barzani, concerned by rising tensions between Arabs and Kurds ahead of the 2010 national elections in Nineveh province, had asked General Odierno for help in preventing conflict. We had devised a system of joint check points to facilitate cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the U.S. forces, and to ensure all forces remained focused on defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq.
A key part of the plan was to ensure freedom of movement for Atheel Nujaifi, Nineveh’s Sunni Arab governor, who had been elected the previous year on an agenda to roll back the gains the Kurds had made in the province since 2005. Determined to test the new security arrangements at the earliest, Governor Nujaifi decided in early February 2010 to make a trip to the town of Tel Kaif, in a part of the province which the Kurds lay claim to. Over Kurdish objections, the U.S. forces decided that the visit should go ahead. In response, the Kurds brought down reinforcements and tried to prevent the trip from taking place. Crowds of Kurds gathered to block the governor’s convoy; in the resulting melee, shots were fired. The Iraqi police detained 11 Kurds for incitement, and on suspicion of attempting to assassinate Governor Nujaifi.