Iraq: Everyone Wants a Piece of Kirkuk, the Golden Prize
Iraq's provincial elections show that the ground is shifting underneath the country's fledgling post-Saddam order. The grip on power exercised by pro-federalist groups - the Kurdish parties and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) - over the past six years is being loosened by an ad hoc coalition of forces that favour a strengthening of the central state. Their standard bearer is Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, whose appointment in 2006 resulted from a compromise when neither ISCI nor its Sadrist rivals were able to impose their own as head of government and whose convincing showing in the provincial polls has given the anti-federalists new momentum.
Mr Maliki won in part because of a mixture of nationalist rhetoric and military moves that angered the Kurds as much as it pleased many ordinary Arab Iraqis. With parliamentary elections on the horizon within a year, Mr Maliki's recipe of confronting the federalists will produce further tensions with the Kurds, who have enjoyed a rare period of peace at home and great influence in Baghdad.
In the past year Mr Maliki launched a campaign to roll back Kurdish power - constitutional, institutional and territorial. In August he sent government forces into areas in the Diyala governorate claimed by the Kurds - disputed territories, according to the constitution, many of which contain oil or gas. They pushed Kurdish security agencies out of three sub-districts then reached a compromise over Khanaqin, a preponderantly Kurdish district town. Local police, not the Iraqi army or Kurdish regional forces, were placed in charge, both sides knowing full well that the local police consist mainly of Kurds. Kurdish leaders seethed, fearing that the Khanaqin operation would be a prelude for similar manoeuvres in Kirkuk - the ultimate prize, given its vast riches in oil and gas.
Soon Mr Maliki began rotating Kurdish military officers out of the north, where their presence in army units had helped Kurdish efforts to bring disputed areas into the Kurdistan region. Potentially facing charges of mutiny, the Kurds yielded, but their rage continued to build. Then matters burst into the open with a public spat between Mr Maliki and the president of the Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, over the federalism issue and amendments to the constitution. In a spiralling battle of rhetoric, Mr Maliki accused Mr Barzani of seeking to break up Iraq, and Mr Barzani responded by suggesting that Mr Maliki might be the new Saddam.
In the coming year, Arab-Kurdish tensions can only escalate. Already, army patrols and other state agents are carrying out probing missions in disputed territories, including near oil and gas fields. Efforts to resolve the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories have stalled over non-implementation of Article 140 of the constitution, which called for a plebiscite by the end of 2007. A draft federal hydrocarbons law, critical to the production and export of oil and gas from new fields, has languished amid deep differences between Baghdad and Erbil. Kirkuk, and its super-giant oil field and significant gas reserves, lies at the heart of the problem.
In October 2008 the International Crisis Group proposed a compromise involving a trade of territorial control for the right to exploit mineral wealth. As part of this "grand bargain", the Kurds would accede to Kirkuk's special status as a stand-alone federal region (ie, outside the Kurdistan region), at least for an interim period; in exchange, they would gain the right to develop and export the Kurdistan region's oil and gas resources. The constitution would be revised accordingly as part of the review process, which at the moment is also stalled.
The proposal received a mixed reception: Arab and Kurdish nationalists rejected it outright, while pragmatists on both sides said they were willing to consider it. Indeed, several senior Kurdish leaders have told me that they would accept Kirkuk's separate status. The question now is whether the political ground has shifted so much that the Arab side, which is growing stronger by the day, will agree to any trade.
The answer may come from the people of Kirkuk themselves. During my frequent visits to the city, the most recent only this month, and broad discussions with political representatives of all parties and communities, I have become convinced that Kirkukis themselves desperately want a negotiated, peaceful and consensual solution, as well as, in the meantime, dramatic improvements in their living conditions through effective governance and reconstruction. A series of diplomatic efforts is now under way to draw Kirkuki policymakers closer together in pursuit of those important objectives. A stronger local voice in the debate over Kirkuk's future could persuade leaders in Baghdad and Erbil to pursue compromise rather than confrontation.
A negotiated result may not satisfy the Kurds' desire to incorporate Kirkuk. But if the matter is left to nationalist impulses on both sides, it will not be resolved. Much better would be to find a middle-ground trade-off from which all sides would benefit. Moreover, this would put an end to the inflammatory, destabilising rhetoric and unblock the dangerous political stalemate in Baghdad.
is Middle East Deputy Programme Director for Crisis Group.