Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis
Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis
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  1. Executive Summary
Report 64 / Middle East & North Africa 2 minutes

Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis

With every day and each exploding bomb that kills schoolchildren or shoppers, hopes for peaceful resolution of the Kirkuk question recede.

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Executive Summary

With every day and each exploding bomb that kills schoolchildren or shoppers, hopes for peaceful resolution of the Kirkuk question recede. The approach favoured by the Kurds, constitution-based steps culminating in a referendum by year’s end, is bitterly opposed by Kirkuk’s other principal communities – Arabs and Turkomans – who see it as a rigged process with predetermined outcome. Their preference, to keep Kirkuk under federal government control, is rejected by the Kurds. With all sides dug in and the Kurds believing Kirkuk is a lost heirloom they are about to regain, the debate should move off outcomes to focus on a fair and acceptable process. For the Kurds, that means postponing the referendum, implementing confidence-building measures and seeking a new mechanism prioritising consensus. The U.S. needs to recognise the risk of an explosion in Kirkuk and press the Kurds, the Baghdad government and Turkey alike to adjust policies and facilitate a peaceful settlement.

The studied bystander mode assumed by Washington, the Kurds’ sole ally, has not been helpful. Preoccupied with their attempt to save Iraq by implementing a new security plan in Baghdad, the Bush administration has left the looming Kirkuk crisis to the side. This neglect can cost the U.S. severely. If the referendum is held later this year over the objections of the other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region, until now Iraq’s only area of quiet and progress. If the referendum is postponed without a viable face-saving alternative for the Kurds, their leaders may withdraw from the Maliki cabinet and thus precipitate a governmental crisis in Baghdad just when the security plan is, in theory, supposed to yield its political returns.

Vigorous international diplomatic efforts on the Kirkuk question are overdue. Along with its allies, and assisted by the UN’s political and technical expertise, the U.S. should forge an alternative strategy on Kirkuk that is acceptable to all parties. Given the complex regional situation, it will need to incorporate two additional critical elements: progress on Iraq’s hydrocarbons law (major parts of which are yet to be negotiated) to cement the Kurdish region securely within a federal Iraq; and Turkey’s concerns about the PKK, the Turkish-Kurd guerrilla group whose fighters are holed up in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to remove Ankara’s potential spoiler role.

If a ray of hope shines through this dismal tangle, it is that all sides in Kirkuk currently seem to agree on the need for dialogue. This includes the Kurds who, having pursued single-mindedly for four years a strategy that, even if it were to lead to the acquisition of Kirkuk, offered no prospect of holding onto it peaceably, have come to recognise its futility. Some are signalling they may be prepared to try something new, even if they continue to insist on a referendum in 2007. The international community should build on this and encourage the Kurds, with a gentle but firm nudge, to step back from the referendum and embrace instead a deliberative consensus-based process that could produce far greater dividends – peace and stability in a shared Kirkuk – than the imposition of their exclusionary rule via an ethnically-based, simple-majority vote and annexation.

Kirkuk/Amman/Brussels, 19 April 2007

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