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Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis
Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

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

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.


Interim President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq