Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurd Demos Spark Ethnic Conflict Concerns

Rallies provoke fears of unrest in the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk.
By Soran Dawoodi

The call for a referendum on the right to self-determination by thousands of Kurdish demonstrators last week has sparked concern over their region’s fate.

Some protestors at the rallies, which took place both in Kurdistan and in Europe, even called for a completely independent Kurdistan – with oil-rich Kirkuk as its capital.

The demonstrations renewed concerns over potential ethnic conflict in Kirkuk, with Mohammed Khalil, an Arab representative on the Kirkuk city council, warning the situation would be “impossible to control” if unrest was triggered.

The Kurdish Referendum movement was established last year by prominent Kurds, who launched a widespread campaign to collect signatures demanding a vote on self-determination.

According to organisers, as many as two million signatures were collected, and letters outlining the goals of the campaign have been sent to the Kurdish parliament, Iraqi president Sheikh Gazi al-Yawer, British premier Tony Blair, US president George Bush, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, among others.

But little has come of it all, and Almaz Fadhil, a lawyer and organiser of last week’s demonstration in Kirkuk, expressed her resentment over the policies of the interim Iraqi government.

“We are annoyed and upset,” she said. “They [the government] have not achieved anything for the Kurds up to now.”

Fadhil said she has demanded the return of tens of thousands of Kurds who were deported from Kirkuk by the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

But the Turkomen Shiite Council, TSC, the country’s largest group of Muslim Turkomen, claims the Kurds already are “enjoying facilities and privileges from the occupiers and the government”.

In Kirkuk, with its mixed ethnicity of Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Assyrians, the issue of the deported Kurds remains troublesome and complicated.

Issues of ethnicity sometimes create divisions in the city or its administrative council, which is comprised of two representatives from each ethnic group.

After the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein last year, thousands of Kurds returned to Kirkuk, seizing former army bases and other public buildings.

The Kurdish representatives in the city council used the Transitional Administrative Law, TAL, to call for an end to the problem of those deported by Saddam’s regime.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the city council formed a committee for the returnees and undertook several actions on their behalf, including gifts of land to those who had been deported and had their own property confiscated by the regime.

According to Kurds, the confiscated land and property had been given to Arab settlers, brought in by the Saddam regime as a means of altering the city’s ethnic balance.

But with the number of Kurds in Kirkuk now increasing, Arabs and Turkomen are expressing concerns, and are even accusing the Kurds of settling thousands of non-Iraqi Kurds in the city.

Khudir Galib, the Turkoman representative on the Committee of the Deported Kurds, said the Kurds are working to create a “security belt” by forming residential compounds around Kirkuk.

“It is an historic mistake and it has severe consequences,” he said.

Galib said the Kurds are trying to change the demographic structure in their favour prior to a census and general elections.

The exact number of Kurds deported under Saddam remains unclear.

Sungol Omar Chapook, a leading Turkoman politician and former member of Iraq’s now disbanded Governing Council, said the number of expelled Kurdish families comes to around 500 while Kurdish sources put the figure at 200,000.

Adding to the confusion, the former Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, said 50,000 Kurds had been deported under Saddam and that half of them had returned to Kirkuk since the end of the war.

But Arabs and Turkomen say that such big numbers also include Kurds who were deported from Irbil, Sulimaniya as well as Kurds who fled to Iran, Syria and Turkey.

The Arab and Turkoman representatives in the city council say the Kurds are inflating the numbers of their deportees and if all those alleged to have been expelled return to Kirkuk, the demographic balance will change to the Kurds' advantage.

In any case, last week’s demonstrations put the Kurds on a collision course with the TSC which has called upon Iraq’s Shiite religious authority, the Marjiya, to block Kurdish efforts at independence.

In particular, the TSC wants the Marjiya to prevent application of Article 58 of the TAL until general elections have been held in January 2005.

Under the terms of Article 58, a majority of the population in any three provinces can reject a permanent constitution for the entire nation even if a majority of Iraqis vote for it.

Many people believe that Article 58 effectively grants the Kurds a veto since they dominate the three provinces of Arbil, Suleimaniyah and Duhok.

The fear is that the Kurds will use their veto as a bargaining chip for their own independence, and efforts are underway to weaken the Kurdish position.

In a letter sent to the Marjiya, the TSC went so far as to describe Kurdish attempts to control Kirkuk as “a seizure which is not different from the Zionist seizure of Jerusalem”.

Soran Dawoodi is a journalist based in Kirkuk.