Its often easy to forget that there are three different groupings in Iraq- the Shia, Sunni and Kurds. We concentrate on the Sunni and Shia and the different dangers that they represent and often forget the Kurds. The Kurds in general have been allied with the United States and coalition in Iraq, in general they have been much the more peaceful of the three major groups inside Iraq. Having said that there are two major reasons why the Kurd presense exacerbates the problems of Iraq- the first is that any strong Kurdistan or any break up of Iraq into a Shia zone, a Sunni and a Kurd would lead to Turkish intervention. Turkey looks very askance at the Kurds because as an ethnic group they stretch into south eastern Turkey and have posed a terrorist threat to the state there. Human rights abuses are common from Turkish forces and an independent Kurdistan would pose a danger to Turkey in providing its rebellious Kurds with a locus of inspiration for their own struggle. Similar things can be said to a lesser extent about Iran.
The other major source of potential problems in the Kurdish sector is Kirkuk. Kirkuk is an emensely valuable city, sitting on a large oil field which at one point was majority Kurdish. Over the last fifty years, Saddam Hussein and his predecessors installed Arabs into the city and noone is quite confident who now dominates. Nouri Talabany, a Kurd MP of the the Iraqi National Assembly, gives some evidence for my worries in this article from the Middle East Quarterly. Talabany reccomends nothing like the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, but he does argue that the Kurds should have primacy amongst the groupings in Kirkuk, he wants the Kurds to take the political lead.
He grounds this desire upon a presumed population composition- he may be right but no census has been taken in Iraq, in the elections the Kurds won 60% of the vote in the province which includes Kirkuk- his other arguments are based on the Kurd's historical claim to Kirkuk. I always blanche slightly at historical claims- the truth is that humans have moved around for centuries so that many peoples share historical claims to any site. Interestingly Yücel Güçlü makes a historically based case for Turkoman control of Kirkuk in the same issue of the Middle East Quarterly. Güçlü does work for the Turkish government, so there may be an element of mischief in what he writes, but it illustrates the problem with claims over Kirkuk in a present day Iraq where people are moving around very swiftly. Historical claims in this context are always very difficult particularly in an area where I suspect nationalities are invented and projected backwards rather than actually existing in the era from which ownership is now being claimed.
I don't want to get into a debate about who owns Kirkuk. But the competing Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman claims to it illustrate the difficulties of splitting Iraq up into different zones. We all know about the difficulties in the South and we are all aware of ethnic conflict there, but if we were to split Iraq, we would risk opening up ethnic conflict in the north, a region that has until now been relatively stable. Civil War has flared up in the South, the North could easily join it and if you think its bad now, that would be much worse.