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Kirkuk Disputes Centre on Oil

The Kurds are accused of trying to wrest control of the city’s political affairs so as to win leverage over its oil.
By Samah Samad

Kirkuk is a city that three different ethnic communities claim as their own - and many suspect the disagreement has less to do with historical rights than with the prospect of controlling the oil it sits on.


Arab and Turkoman politicians in the northern city are accusing their Kurdish counterparts of trying to wrest political control here only because it is home to substantial reserves of oil and natural gas.


That’s something the Kurds - who won a majority on the provincial council in the January 30 election – deny, saying they are merely reclaiming their rightful place in the city.


The various groups that live in Kirkuk, including Kurds, Arabs and Turkoman, all assert a historical claim to the city.


Arabs and Turkoman members have been boycotting council meetings for weeks because of disagreements over how key posts, including that of provincial governor, should be allocated. In theory, the Kurdish groups could force a decision using their weight of numbers on the council, but they have been reluctant to do so as that would provoke the other groups.


Prior to the poll, the membership of Kirkuk governorate council was balanced among the city’s ethnic groups, but the January election gave the Kirkuk Brotherhood bloc – a coalition set up especially to contest elections here - 26 of the council’s 41 seats. Although the bloc included Arabs and Turkomans, it was the creation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.


The Kurds’ political opponents believe their real agenda is oil. Although the Iraqi oil industry is controlled centrally in Baghdad, anyone who holds political power in Kirkuk could exercise significant leverage.


Arab and Turkoman politicians go further than that, voicing suspicions that the Kurds’ ultimate goal is not just to run the local council, but to get Kirkuk incorporated into an expanded, federal Kurdistan as part of the new constitutional arrangements for Iraq. Kurdistan, consisting of three governorates which gained de facto autonomy from Saddam’s rule and is now governed through its own regional assembly, does not include Kirkuk – a city which many Kurds think would make a natural capital city.


“Kirkuk is a major source of oil and that’s why it’s a centre of disputes,” said Ali Mahdi, a provincial council member who is deputy head of the Turkoman Front party. “It’s also why the Kurdish leadership is trying in every way to get control over Kirkuk under the pretext of federalism.”


Mohammed Khalil, an Arab member of the council, agrees, saying, “Kirkuk is a tree full of fruit, and it’s having stones thrown at it. If the Kurds get Kirkuk and its oil, I think there will be civil war.”


Khalil believes Kurdish politicians are only pressing for a federal system for Iraq as a precursor to a fully independent state of Kurdistan which would incorporate Kirkuk and its oil.


But Kurdish figures in the city disagree. According to Sherzad Adil Khorshid, a Kurdish member of the council, his community’s claims to Kirkuk have nothing to do with oil. Instead, he said, “It is a matter of history.”


The allegations about oil are "excuses and invalid accusations", he said. "They have come up with these comments to stop the Kurds winning their full rights.”


Under Saddam Hussein’s “Arabisation” policy, large numbers of Kurds were forced to move away from Kirkuk and Arabs were brought in to replace them. Many Kurds have come back since Saddam was ousted, and the shift in demographic has – with other factors – contributed to some ethnic tensions in the city. The Kurdish bloc’s decisive election win was helped by the decision of Iraq’s electoral commission to allow more than 70,000 displaced Kurds to vote. That ruling angered many Arab and Turkomans, who felt it tilted the ballot against them.


Yet even if the Kirkuk political class is divided on the bigger issue of who the city and its oil should belong to, there is agreement that the city should see more of the profits from its local industry.


According to Arab member Khalil, the local council has previously asked Baghdad to allocate ten per cent of the oil revenues generated by Kirkuk to be spent on reconstruction projects in the area, but this request was turned down.


For the Kurds, Khorshid said councillors would continue asking for a slice of the revenues.


Turkoman Front deputy leader Mahdi agreed that it important for Kirkuk to see some of the money it generated. But he cautioned that before such a request could be put to Baghdad, tensions between the local parties needed to be eased.


“First we should remove the chaos and then ask for a portion of the oil revenues,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible for us to benefit from oil unless the parties in Kirkuk make an alliance so as to transcend the obstacles.”


Samah Samad is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.