Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk
Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq Twenty Years After
Iraq Twenty Years After

Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk

As all eyes are turned toward efforts to stabilise Iraq, the conflict that has been percolating in Kirkuk remains dangerous and dangerously neglected.

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Executive Summary

As all eyes are turned toward efforts to stabilise Iraq, the conflict that has been percolating in Kirkuk remains dangerous and dangerously neglected. That struggle is equal parts street brawl over oil riches, ethnic competition over identity between Kurdish, Turkoman, Arab and Assyrian-Chaldean communities, and titanic clash between two nations, Arab and Kurd. Given the high stakes, the international community cannot afford to stand by, allowing the situation to slip into chaos by default. It needs to step in and propose a solution that addresses all sides’ core concerns without crossing their existential red lines. The most viable negotiated outcome, which a special UN envoy should mediate between leaders of Kirkuk’s communities as well as representatives of the federal government and the Kurdish federal region, would rest on the following provisions:

  • postponing the constitutionally-mandated referendum on Kirkuk’s status which, in today’s environment, would only exacerbate tensions;
  • designating Kirkuk governorate as a stand-alone federal region falling neither under the Kurdish federal region nor directly under the federal government for an interim period;
  • equitable power-sharing arrangements between Kirkuk’s four principal communities; and
  • continued reversal of past abuses, including managed return of those who were forcibly displaced by previous regimes; facilities and compensation for those brought by previous regimes (including their offspring) who agree to leave voluntarily; resolution of property disputes via the established mechanism; and a process by which former Kirkuk districts can either be restored to Kirkuk governorate or remain where they are.

To the Kurds, Kirkuk was always a Kurdish-majority region – shared, they readily admit, with other communities – over which they fought and suffered, from Arabisation to forced depopulation to genocide. In their view, the Baathist regime’s removal created an opportunity to restore Kirkuk to its rightful owners. They have done much in the past three years to encourage the displaced to return, persuade Arab newcomers to depart and seize control of political and military levers of power. Their ultimate objective is to incorporate Kirkuk governorate into the Kurdish federal region and make Kirkuk town its capital.

To the other communities, the Kurdish claim is counterfeit, inspired primarily by a greedy appetite for oil revenue, and they view the progressive Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk as an outrage. To the Turkomans, in particular, the growing Kurdish presence has caused deep resentment, as they consider Kirkuk town historically Turkoman (while conceding that the Kurds are a significant urban minority, as well as an outright majority in the surrounding countryside).

The Kurds’ rising power has allowed them to create institutional faits accomplis that now threaten to bring the Kirkuk conflict to a vigorous boil. Their prominent role in drafting the constitution in 2005 enabled them to insert a paragraph that ordains a government-led de-Arabisation program in Kirkuk, to be followed by a census and local referendum by the end of 2007. However, while the constitution puts them formally in the right, neither any of Kirkuk’s other communities, significant parts of the central government nor any neighbouring state supports these procedures. Turkey, in particular, has indicated it will not tolerate Kirkuk’s formal absorption into the Kurdish region, and it has various means of coercive diplomacy at its disposal, including last-resort military intervention, to block the Kurds’ ambitions.

Within a year, therefore, Kurds will face a basic choice: to press ahead with the constitutional mechanisms over everyone’s resistance and risk violent conflict, or take a step back and seek a negotiated solution.

Passions may be too high to permit the latter course but, on the basis of two years of conversations with representatives of all Kirkuk’s communities, as well as of the governments of Iraq, Turkey, the U.S. and the Kurdish federal region, Crisis Group believes a compromise arrangement that meets all sides’ vital interests is attainable.

Failure by the international community to act early and decisively could well lead to a rapid deterioration as the December 2007 deadline approaches. The result would be violent communal conflict, spreading civil war and, possibly, outside military intervention. It is doubtful that an Iraq so profoundly unsettled by sectarian rifts and insurgent violence would survive another major body blow in an area where the largest of the country’s diverse communities are represented.

Amman/Brussels, 18 July 2006

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