Kirkuk Dispute Close to Boiling Point

Analysts say political agreement must be reached to defuse escalating tensions over contested city’s status.

Kirkuk Dispute Close to Boiling Point

Analysts say political agreement must be reached to defuse escalating tensions over contested city’s status.

Friday, 28 March, 2008
Last month, a United Nations envoy likened the struggle between Kurds and Arabs for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq to a “ticking time bomb''.

Staffan de Mistura, who is helping broker a settlement between Baghdad and Erbil on future arrangements for Kirkuk, said in an interview for the Bloomberg news agency that he had just a few months left to solve what he termed “the mother of all crises'' in Iraq.

“If that takes place, we will have contributed substantially to avoiding a new conflict at the worst possible time,'' said the Swedish diplomat in the report.

The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, would like to see the return of Kurds who were expelled from Kirkuk as part of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s “Arabisation” policy, under which the Kurds – whom he viewed as politically suspect – were driven out of oil-rich areas of the north and replaced by a smaller number of Arabs.

The Kurds say they have a historical claim to Kirkuk city, and that they lost a great deal of property and land there under Saddam.

The KRG is calling for a referendum to decide the future of the city and its surrounding oil fields, which lie outside Kurdistan’s three provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk.

Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution contains a provision for just such a referendum to decide the fate of the city and its environs.

Under this article, the authorities must first achieve "normalisation" – taken to mean the reversal or mitigation of “Arabisation” policy – and hold a census in Kirkuk. The government must complete a series of steps set out in the Transitional Administrative Law – an interim constitution dating from 2004. These include restitution for people who were forced out; resettling or otherwise accommodating people who were moved into the area by Saddam; and remedying unjust boundary changes carried out by his regime.

While no up-to-date statistics exist on the ethnic and religious make-up of the province of Kirkuk (also known as Tamim), Kurds are thought to be the largest ethnic group, and they hold the most seats on the provincial council.

But the idea that the city could be incorporated into an expanded Kurdish region is bitterly opposed by Iraqi Arabs, who do not want to cede control of the city and its oil to an autonomous Kurdish entity. The area is thought to hold some 12 per cent of Iraq's confirmed oil reserves.

Kirkuk’s significant Turkoman population, which has its own historical claims on the city, is also against absorption into the KRG and would rather see the city granted some kind of special status.

A decision was made in December to delay the referendum until June this year, partly because of growing violence in Kirkuk.

As the Kirkuk crisis simmers, relations between the KRG capital Erbil and Baghdad have been further strained by disagreements over the funding of the Peshmerga or Kurdish military, and over oil deals signed by the Kurds without reference to Baghdad. The Iraqi oil ministry claims these arrangements are unconstitutional and is reportedly threatening to blacklist the foreign companies involved, preventing them pursuing oil contracts with Baghdad.

The UN has now been drafted in to help settle disagreements over Kirkuk and other matters ahead of a plebiscite designed to “determine the will of… citizens” with regard to the city and other disputed territories.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbours look on with keen interest. If the KRG were to absorb Kirkuk, the consolidation this would mean for the entity could have implications for Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Ankara is fiercely protective of Kirkuk’s Turkomans, and also fearful that Kurdistan could use the added oil wealth to make a future bid for independence – something it would oppose given the implications for its home-grown Kurdish separatist movement.

Were there to be an actual conflict over Kirkuk, it now seems less and less certain whether Kurdistan could count on the backing of Washington, formerly a close ally. The United States was notably slow to react when Turkey breached Iraqi sovereignty by launching incursions into the north of the country last month, in pursuit of rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.


While there is some sympathy for the Kurds’ ambition to secure greater control of resources so as to help prevent a repeat of their past suffering, a recent wave of articles abroad has accused Kurdistan of overplaying its hand.

US analyst Michael O’Hanlon suggested in a piece for the Washington Post last month that by laying claim to Kirkuk and independently developing oil fields, Kurds were “making a major mistake”.

“They should rethink their approach both out of fairness to the United States, which has given them a chance to help build a post-Hussein Iraq, and in the interests of [both] the Kurds and their neighbours,” he said.

Other analysts suggested that US support for Kurdistan has been ebbing in recent months.

“I think there’s a feeling that in Washington the Kurds have got a good deal in Iraq and that they need to focus on that and not be reaching for more,” observed Daniel Serwer of the United States Institute of Peace, USIP.

Joost Hiltermann of the Brussels-based think tank the International Crisis Group, ICG, thought that while the Kurds had a historic opportunity to press forward, that window was now starting to close as US support waned.

As the US attempts to rebuild Iraq, it needs to persuade the political winners of recent years to cede some of their power so that excluded groups can be drawn in, he said. That suggests that the Kurds as well as the powerful Shia parties would have to give some ground.

But that may be easier said than done. Kurdish politics have their own internal dynamics, and the intense competition between the two big players — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP — may be spurring them on to make greater demands.

"Kurdish leaders sometimes play to the gallery of their own regional politics," said BBC journalist Quil Lawrence, author of “Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East”.

"When they go to Baghdad they need to play tough and say, ‘Kirkuk is our beating heart’, because the opposing Kurdish party just came to Baghdad and said, ‘Kirkuk is our Jerusalem’," he explained.

Kurdish journalist and Middle East expert Dr Rebwar Fatah doubts the Kurds will give up on their claim to the city, unless Kirkuk’s population itself chooses to reject annexation. “It would be very difficult if Kirkuk accepted not being part of the Kurdish region,” he admitted.

Fatah dismissed the notion that Kurds are demanding too much, saying they merely wanted security and control over their own resources.

If the city did not become part of the Kurdish region, he said, “Kurds would eventually be pushed out of Kirkuk.”

He drew a clear analogy with another mixed-population northern city claimed by the Kurds, noting, “Historically, Mosul was a Kurdish area, but now the east part is Kurdish and the west part Arab.”

Some argue that Kurdistan is being unfairly penalised for securing favourable terms when the constitution was being drafted.

“[Some Shia] think Kurdistan did too well in the negotiations over the constitution of 2005 and have been trying to rein them in,” said Professor Brendan O'Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, who acted as advisor to the KRG on the constitution.

O’Leary denied that Kurdish aspirations were driven by a desire to get rich from Kirkuk’s oil, a view promulgated by certain politicians and media reports.

“It’s false to allege that the dispute in Kirkuk is about oil, and it’s also equally false to allege that the Kurds are planning to seize the oil fields and then declare independence,” he said.

“Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, there is an agreement that the revenues of Kirkuk will be distributed across Iraq as a whole.”

Indeed, Kurds often stress that the Kirkuk question is about people, not oil, pointing out that they currently receive 17 per cent of the country’s oil revenue and would receive just 12 per cent from Kirkuk.


Observers say that the longer the status of Kirkuk hangs in the balance, the more the tensions will grow.

Narmeen Osman, the Iraqi environment minister and a member of the Iraqi Committee for the Implementation of Article 140, said the federal government had been slow to implement the terms of the article "because of political pressures" from inside and outside Iraq.

There are widespread fears that come June, the referendum will be delayed once again. Political elements in government with close ties with Iran are likely to be obstructive, while Kurdistan’s fear of alienating Turkey could also cause a delay.

Turkey’s importance to Iraq was seen earlier this month when Iraqi president and PUK leader Jalal Talabani led an official delegation on a visit to Ankara.

During the visit, which was held in part to restore normal relations between Ankara and Erbil after the Turkish military incursion to hunt down PKK guerrillas last month, Talabani urged Turkish businesses to invest in the country.

A source who accompanied the Iraqi delegation to Ankara this month told IWPR that Turkish friendship was vital to Iraqi Kurdistan’s future.

“Without a relationship with Turkey, Kurdistan can get nowhere,” said the source. “Turkey is its gate to Europe and Washington; its only breathing space.”

From a practical point of view, it seems very little progress on implementing those elements of Article 140 which should precede a referendum.

“I don't think that there will be any referendum. There has not been much progress on the three stages of normalisation. [First] there has to be compensation and moving of people who have been settled for up to 35 years,” said Fatah.

He argued that delaying the referendum had created a vacuum in Kirkuk, and had also served to isolate the KRG further from the population, who see it as self-serving and unwilling to tackle the problem head-on.

“[The Kurdish authorities] have tried to manage the problem, not to do anything about it,” he said.

Like other observers, Fatah predicts continuing resistance to Article 140 from Arabs both inside Iraq and from other regional states.

Hiltermann thinks obstruction from the Baghdad government could prevent the referendum being held, and agrees that very little progress had been made with the normalisation process.

“Most Kurds who were expelled from Kirkuk in the previous era have not returned, mostly because there are no resources there for them… so they haven’t come back. Many of the Arabs who were brought there by the previous regimes are also still there and probably will stay there,” he said.

Serwer agreed that much still had to be done, saying, “There are a lot of complicated issues – technical issues that need to be resolved if the referendum is to go ahead in June, and I’m not seeing the kind of intensive preparations that would enable them to go ahead in June.”

However, O’Leary thought there was still plenty of time to prepare.

“I don’t think it’s all taken place at full speed, but there are funds available to assist in normalisation, and many families have taken advantage of those and some families are waiting,” he said.


As the referendum deadline looms, politicians are divided on how to proceed.

One Iraqi government adviser who did not want to be named said he believed the pressure could be eased by embarking on the normalisation process, but putting the plebiscite on hold for the time being.

“Work on the normalisation process, and put the issue of the referendum to one side,” he said. “Even if five per cent of the process was done, it would serve as a confidence-building measure.”

Narmeen Osman, however, worried that a second postponement would merely inflame relations between Erbil and Baghdad.

"The solution for the problem is the implementation of the article — normalise, conduct censuses and then referendum,” she said.

O’Leary pointed out that while it would be better to engage all the parties concerned, it would be possible to go ahead without the support of the Baghdad government.

“I think, in principle, there is no reason why the referendum could not be held jointly by the Kirkuk governorate itself – at present the majority of Kurdistan-allied parties are on it – with the Kurdistan Regional Government,” he said.

However, there are fears that such a unilateral move could make an already difficult situation worse.

Izzat al-Shahbandar, a member of parliament from the Iraqi National List, believes further negotiations are needed between Kurdistan and the federal government to iron out any disagreements in advance.

"It is not enough to…normalise relations, and conduct a referendum that has supports and opponents. Otherwise, the day of June 6, 2008 is going to be a time bomb."


Observers say the reluctance of certain Iraqi political forces to comply with the constitutional requirement to hold a referendum demonstrates a failure to engage all sides in the process from the outset.

Lawrence pointed out that the current obstruction to implementing the constitution was in part because the Sunni Arabs had largely boycotted the drafting process, and therefore consider the end result "null and void".

"The basic problem right now is the constitution, which was written without genuine Sunni input," he said.

"The Sunnis have a legitimate gripe in that they didn't really sign off on the constitution, they were promised that there would be time after the constitution passed to amend it, and correct it from their opinion. But the parts they’d like to scrap are exactly what the Kurds say are ‘red-lines’ for them [and must] stay in."

Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman says it is imperative to negotiate broad political backing for any solution in Kirkuk itself, regardless of the outcome of any referendum.

“Even if you get a majority in Kirkuk with the referendum, then clearly you have to make a deal with the Arabs and Turkomans so that they will be not against it, so that you could implement it,” he said.

Others continue to argue that territorial disputes should be decided through negotiations and political agreement, rather than by a referendum at this stage.

“It can be that any agreement that results from such negotiations could be ratified in a popular referendum,” said Hiltermann.

Establishing a broad consensus between Iraq’s main parties could also decrease the likelihood of external actors muscling in.

And as a growing engagement with the political process emerges in Iraq, there are signs that an agreement on Kirkuk may be a possibility.

“My sense is that among both Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, you have a much broader acceptance of the constitution than you had a year ago. People are much more willing to take their problems into parliament, into provincial councils, to the press, than they were once upon a time,” said Serwer.


Despite the rising trend of violence since 2003, analysts do not believe that Kirkuk is headed for an all-out local civil war.

O’Leary disputed the media’s characterisation of Kirkuk as “a tinderbox waiting to explode”.

“I don’t think that the Kurdistan government will provoke violence,” he said, adding that the KRG had shown a commitment to negotiating by constitutional and democratic means.

“It’s important to note that the Kirkuk governorate is already in effect under the security blanket of the Peshmerga and therefore I wouldn’t expect any change on the ground,” he said.

According to the analyst, if the dispute over Kirkuk were to intensify, the Baghdad government would be unlikely to deploy troops against the Peshmerga, who are better trained and more cohesive than Arab units of the Iraqi army.

Washington would be “foolish” to permit any Turkish intervention on behalf of the Turkomans of Kirkuk, he added.

The KRG and the government in Baghdad have also shown a commitment to come to an agreement through negotiations, rather than violence.

"There are meetings and negotiations between the central government and the Kurdish leadership and both sides agree that the issues should be solved in peaceful ways," said Osman.

And with the UN-assisted negotiating process just getting under way, it seems far too early to talk of civil war.

“If [the talks] fail, then you will get real trouble in these areas over oil and other issues, resources — oil and gas mostly – population growth, and that could lead to civil war, but we are far from that and we are certainly able to prevent that,” said Hiltermann.

While Serwer sees potential for violence over the issue of Kirkuk, he does not expect conflict on a large scale.

“Kirkukis are quite determined not to be the theatre for the broader conflict between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq,” he said.

Caroline Tosh is an IWPR editor in London. Zaineb Ahmed is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.

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