Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
As soon as I saw the demonstration, I knew that there would be trouble.
Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them Kurds, had gathered outside of the provincial council offices in Kirkuk on July 28 to protest a parliamentary decision that set aside an equal number of provincial council seats for Turkomans, Arabs and Kurds. Turkomans and Arabs had largely backed the proposal, but Kurds, who believe they are the majority in Kirkuk, were fiercely opposed to the power-sharing agreement.
My fear that danger was lurking proved correct: a suicide bomber blew herself up in the crowd, scattering bodies everywhere. No one has claimed responsibility, but the attack sparked ethnic tensions in Kirkuk, my hometown.
It also underscored the importance that Kirkuk’s various ethnic groups – particularly their political representatives – reach an accord. But since the attacks, only the opposite has occurred.
The Kurdish-led provincial council demanded on July 31 that the Baghdad authorities allow Kirkuk to become a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, a move that would bypass a constitutional process which aims to determine whether Kirkuk will be governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, or centrally.
Most Kurds in Kirkuk want the oil-rich province to be integrated into Iraqi Kurdistan, so the council demand didn’t come as a total surprise. But it wasn’t initially clear whether Kurdish politicians were making a political statement or wanted the immediate incorporation of Kirkuk into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Observers believed that the step was like pouring oil on a fire, as Kurdish lawmakers in Baghdad battled with other groups over how the provincial council seats should be distributed in the next local elections. Those elections are likely to be delayed nationwide because of the problems over Kirkuk.
The Kurds’ call to join Kirkuk to Iraqi Kurdistan showed a lack of wisdom because the other political parties would never accept such a decision. It does not take into consideration any of the changes that have occurred in the past few decades, when the Ba’athist government radically altered the demography of Kirkuk by settling Arabs and kicking out Kurds and Turkomans. It does not take into account the new generations of settlers who grew up here and consider Kirkuk their home, and who find it difficult to accept the idea of living anywhere else.
The Kirkuk council demand is unlikely to be seriously considered because it will jeopardise security in Kirkuk and Iraq as a whole.
And it paves the way for Arabs and Turkomans to make similar ownership demands over Kirkuk. Arabs and Turkomans have escalated the situation and showed their disdain for the Kurds by demonstrating against the council move. They said they would be willing to use violence to ensure that Kirkuk remain part of Iraq.
Some say that the best solution that could satisfy all parties would be to grant Kirkuk special status, according to which it would acquire a high degree of autonomy within Iraq. But even if this were to happen, there could be conflict about who will administer the city.
The call to put Kirkuk under Kurdish authority is dangerous. Splitting Kirkuk from Iraq in this manner could open the floodgates for sectarian, religious and ethnic violence that might destroy the province – particularly because Iraq does not yet have a powerful central government.
Particularly worrying is that Turkey, which has close ties with Kirkuk Turkomans, has warned the Kurds that the Turkish military may intervene if Iraqi Kurdistan tries to grab Kirkuk. With Ankara behind them, Kirkuk Turkomans are an assertive community, some of whom may hinder efforts to find a solution for Kirkuk.
But the Turkomans must not forget that they are Iraqis too, and nothing but the Iraqi army and the constitution can protect them in the end.
Samah Samad is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kirkuk.
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