Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead
Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead
Resolving the Gulf Crisis outside the Gulf
Resolving the Gulf Crisis outside the Gulf
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead

When I first visited Kirkuk, Iraq's oil-rich city inhabited by Turkomans, Kurds, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, on the heels of the Gulf War in early April 1991, I witnessed the wholesale destruction of the city's Kurdish Shorja quarter. Saddam Hussein's bulldozers were punishing the Kurds for his forces' ouster from the north in a popular uprising two weeks earlier.  Kurdish peshmerga rebels had taken Kirkuk, exploiting Saddam's weakness following his defeat in Kuwait, but the Gulf war allies' failure to support them allowed the dictator to regroup.  Using his armour and helicopters, he "restored order" - killing thousands, while hundreds of thousands more streamed into Iran or were stranded at the Turkish border.

Shorja's destruction was emblematic of the horrors the regime visited on the Kurds. Some years earlier, in culmination of a decades-long campaign to Arabise the Kirkuk region, its forces had depopulated the Kurdish countryside, displacing villagers to vast resettlement camps inside the Kurdish region and razing their homes. In the 1988 Anfal campaign, the regime went further, killing all able-bodied men, women and even children from Kirkuk-area villages so as to prevent any possibility of the area's regeneration with a Kurdish identity.

Understandably, Kurdish leaders have sought to capitalise on their newfound power following the regime's 2003 ouster by pursuing the redress of past injustices. In doing so, however, they have gone beyond a mere reversal of Arabisation's various aspects (for example, the return of displaced Kurds and rehabilitation of Kirkuk neighbourhoods, such as Shorja, and the countryside) by laying claim to Kirkuk governorate as part of the Kurdish region. In other words, they are using the historic opportunity of rolling back Arab domination to sue for independence through the acquisition of Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

The realisation of the Kurds' ambition to annex Kirkuk is centred on a popular referendum about the area's status, scheduled for the end of this year, whose outcome, via a Kurds-designed process embedded in Iraq's new constitution, is predetermined. By engineering a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk over the past four years, the Kurds know they cannot lose.

As the clock ticks closer to the constitutionally mandated deadline, however, it looks increasingly unlikely that a referendum will be held this year. Not only is growing political opposition to the Kurds' ambition militating against the Iraqi government's ability to organise a referendum, but practically speaking many difficult procedural questions have yet to be addressed, let alone resolved. Should the referendum be held only in Kirkuk or also in other areas claimed by the Kurds? Which are the "disputed territories" mentioned in the constitution? What are the boundaries of each of these territories? What will constitute a constituency or voting district? Who will be eligible to vote? And who will oversee creation of the voter roll and the referendum itself? Each of these questions is controversial and will stir protracted wrangling.

If the Kurds' effort is faltering, they have only themselves to blame, as they have signally failed to gain the trust of Kirkuk's other communities. After achieving political dominance in April 2003 and especially after provincial council elections in January 2005, they monopolised political and administrative power in Kirkuk rather than sharing it, and directed reconstruction funds toward Kurdish villages and neighbourhoods, leaving others to wallow in neglect.

Moreover, unremitting rivalry between the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has led both parties to heighten their rhetoric on Kirkuk. This may win them votes at home but it is preventing both from backing off from their maximum demands and pursuing compromise with the other communities.

More broadly, Kurdish leaders have failed to explain to Iraqis why Kirkuk's accession to the Kurdish region would be good for the country. Instead, they have fuelled suspicions that they are using Kirkuk as a stepping stone toward secession, banking on its oil wealth to reduce their economic dependence on both Iraq and neighbouring countries.

The Kurds face a choice. If they wish to pursue political independence, they should say so. Given their past struggles and suffering, they can make a good case that they are entitled to it, and they may enjoy a good deal of support among Iraqis and the international community. But in that case no Iraqi who is not a Kurd, nor the neighbouring states, will allow the Kurds to take Kirkuk along.

If, on the other hand, the Kurds accept a federal solution to their predicament, they will not only have to live with other Iraqis but make compromises with them, some very painful. In such a scenario, Kirkuk could only be shared, its power and administration fairly divided between its principal representatives. The Kurds would then be in their right to ask for international security guarantees so that the atrocities of the past cannot and will not be repeated.

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