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Iraq's Kurds: Toward an Historic Compromise?
Iraq's Kurds: Toward an Historic Compromise?
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's Kurds: Toward an Historic Compromise?

The removal of the Ba'ath regime in 2003 opened a Pandora's box of long-suppressed aspirations, none as potentially explosive as the Kurds' demand, expressed publicly and with growing impatience, for wide-ranging autonomy in a region of their own, including the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk.

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Executive Summary

The removal of the Ba'ath regime in 2003 opened a Pandora's box of long-suppressed aspirations, none as potentially explosive as the Kurds' demand, expressed publicly and with growing impatience, for wide-ranging autonomy in a region of their own, including the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk. If mismanaged, the Kurdish question could fatally undermine the political transition and lead to renewed violence. Kurdish leaders need to speak more candidly with their followers about the compromises they privately acknowledge are required, and the international community needs to work more proactively to help seal the historic deal.

The Kurdish demand for a unified, ethnically-defined region of their own with significant powers and control over natural resources has run up against vehement opposition from Iraqi Arabs, including parties that, while still in exile, had broadly supported it. The Kurds in turn vigorously objected to the kind of federalism envisaged in the agreement reached in November 2003 by Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Interim Governing Council, which would have been based on Iraq's eighteen existing governorates, including three individual, predominately Kurdish ones, and have left them without control of Kirkuk.

A series of negotiations produced a compromise in the interim constitution (Transitional Administrative Law, TAL) signed on 8 March 2004 that recognised a single Kurdish region effectively equivalent to what the Kurds have governed in semi-independence since 1991 (that is, without Kirkuk), elevated Kurdish to official language status alongside Arabic and met another Kurdish demand by providing that a census would be held in Kirkuk before its final status was determined. In return, the Kurdish leaders accepted postponement of the knotty Kirkuk question until the constitutional process that begins only sometime in 2005 is complete and a legitimate and sovereign Iraqi government has been established through direct elections.

Meanwhile, away from the give and take of the negotiations in Baghdad, the Kurds are contributing mightily to a volatile atmosphere by creating demographic and administrative facts in Kirkuk, using their numbers and superior organisation to undo decades of Arabisation and stake a strong claim to the area. The Turkoman, Arab and Assyro-Chaldean communities are increasingly worried about Kurdish domination evident in control of key directorates, strength on the provincial council and the steady return of Kurds displaced by past Arabisation campaigns in a process that many see as reverse ethnic cleansing. In March 2004, rising tensions led the Arab and Turkoman members to resign from the Kirkuk provincial council. A pattern, new for Kirkuk, has begun to emerge of sectarian-based protests that erupt into violence.

Significantly, however, the tough bargaining and rhetoric during the TAL negotiations and the friction in Kirkuk mask a profound shift in Kurdish strategy that is yet to be broadcast and understood publicly. The top leadership of the two principal Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is offering Iraqi Arabs what amounts to an historic compromise: acceptance of an autonomous region as the maximum objective of the Kurdish national movement they represent and, even more importantly, a willingness, expressed in interviews with ICG, to abandon the exclusive claim to Kirkuk in favour of a sharing arrangement under which the city and governorate would receive a special status.

Regrettably, Kurdish leaders have yet to announce their decision or start preparing the Kurdish people for this profound and seemingly genuine strategic shift. Indeed, there is a growing discrepancy between what the Kurds want, what they say they want and what non-Kurds suspect they want. Given strong pro-independence sentiments in both the Kurdish region and Kurdish diaspora, they may encounter large-scale popular opposition to their plan at precisely the time -- the run-up to the constitutional process -- when they will need to persuade a sceptical Arab public, as well as neighbouring states such as Turkey, of their true intentions in order to realise even their reduced aspirations. For their part, Arab leaders have yet to lower their rhetoric and negotiate seriously with their Kurdish counterparts to preserve Iraq's unity by hammering out constitutional guarantees assuring Kurds that the atrocities of the past will not recur.

If the U.S.-designed political transition comes unstuck in the face of continuing Sunni alienation and insurgency and escalating Shiite discontent, as the events of April 2004's first week threaten, Kurdish leaders may alter their stance again and be tempted to protect the gains they have made since 1991 by asserting unilateral control over claimed territories, including Kirkuk. That would likely cross a Turkish red line and risk a grave regional confrontation. Even if matters calm down and the political transition is able to proceed more or less as planned, however, the Kurdish question will require sustained international engagement.

The occupying powers, and the international community more generally, should pay heed to the Kurds' fair demands. Continuing instability, the Kurds' high expectations and their ability not only to express but possibly to realise long-standing aspirations by institutional power or violence make it imperative for non-Iraqi actors, including the UN, to step in and mediate a fair resolution of competing claims. Failure to quench the Kurdish thirst, after 80 years of betrayals, discrimination and state-sponsored violence, for a broad margin of freedom within a unitary Iraq could well pave the way for more radical elements to gain the upper hand in the Kurdish community and press a separatist agenda -- with possibly disastrous consequences for Iraq and the region.

Amman/Brussels, 8 April 2004

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