Kirkuk and the political stand-offs in Iraq
Kirkuk has an ethnically mixed population, and has experienced dramatic demographic changes in the course of the twentieth century. Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs lay conflicting claims to this region, and all have their historical accounts, as well as memories to substantiate their claims. Since April 2003, thousands of internally displaced Kurds have returned to Kirkuk and other Arabized regions to reclaim their homes and lands which have since been occupied by Arabs from central and Southern Iraq. Kurds make up an estimated 52 percent of Kirkuk’s population. Arabs represent 35 percent, while Turkmen, ethnic Turks with close ties to Turkey, make up 12 percent. Other minorities include Christians, approximately 12,000 live in Kirkuk currently.
USA pullout plan in Iraq pleased most Iraqi factions, but worried Kurdish leadership because USA is perceived as a close and trusted ally. Iraq without USA presence raised many concerns, and has fueled tensions between Kurdish authorities in North and central Baghdad government. While USA troops were on ground there were less hostilities between Baghdad’s central government and Kurdish leadership and consequently the USA was perceived as a force for keeping peace between different political parties, and ethnic groups.
One of the reasons Kirkuk has become increasingly important, is in the fact that it has large oil reserves. This is why the Baghdad central government has expressed ‘Arab’ claim over the region because if it did not have oil reserves, little attention would be paid to it. However, for Kurds this region represents more than oil. It is the heart of Kurdistan, where Kurds have fought against Iraqi regimes for decades and rebelled against forced assimilation movements.
In 2010, the United Nations proposed a plan to defuse tensions in Kirkuk by giving it a ‘special status’ where both Iraq and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would exercise power over it while it was financed from Baghdad. The drafted plan was to cre- ate a power-sharing system in an attempt to avoid explosion of ethnic violence, and potentially avoid a civil war in the region. This idea was rejected by KRG’s Ministry for Extra-Regional Affairs. Mohammed Ihsan did not believe political autonomy in Kirkuk is an option, instead he argued “UN cannot solve Kirkuk alone, I call Iraqi parties to use dialogue in resolving this issue, and we should depend on the results of 2005 election in coming to a decision”.
A senior official has said, Kirkuk can only be resolved by article 140 in the Iraqi constitution. The scheduled Kirkuk referendum is a central part of the Kirkuk normalization process that will ultimately be the demarcation of whether the Kurdish regions within the Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahudeen and Nineveh are annexed to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. The referendum was initially planned for 15 November 2007, but was delayed to 31st of December, and then further delayed for six months. The Kurdish alliance has emphasized that the delay was for technical reasons as opposed to re- cent political tensions.
Some of the contested issues between KRG and Baghdad include Kirkuk, article 140, the budget, the role of Kurdish armed and security forces, oil deals, and disputed areas. Tensions have persisted and deepened to an unacceptable level, prompting President of Kurdistan region to warn Baghdad, “Patience has limits, the tensions between Kurdistan Region and Baghdad cannot stay unresolved forever”, adding that the Kurdistan region is always ready to address these issues through dialogue and constitutional measures.
Unfortunately if the current tensions escalate, and lead to a civil war the goals of USA would be jeopardized in maintaining stability across Iraq. This is particularly important because the elections set for April 20, 2013 will change the course of Iraqi politics, and could potentially shift the balance of powers. More importantly, President Barack Obama promised ‘peaceful elections’ and stability in Iraq while USA troops pulled out. For this reasons it is vital that stabil- ity is maintained across Iraq because if civil war erupts it would taint USA’s image and show them in a critical light once more.
The United States troops withdrawal was gradual, and emphasis was put on the fact that at least 120,000 American troops remained on Iraqi soil until the elections of December 2009 were finished. Immediately following the elections, the pull-out continued and military operations ended on 31st of August 2010. However, without the presence of USA troops, the upcoming general election could be problematic.
Although the Obama administration expected 3550,000 troops to remain on Iraqi soil after the pull-out plan, the Iraqi government pressurized the Bush administration into agreeing to remove all USA troops by the end of 2011. Consequently, regardless of how Iraqi politics are shaped, and where it leads to, the Obama administration has little control over it.
Ali Hemdani is a political activist residing in Kirkuk, and he believes that there are three main concerns which must be dealt with. The current situation in Iraq is unstable, and this is because Iraqi politics is not orientated around democratic reconciliation, or dialogue. Instead the army, and military support is given priority, which is why tensions in this region could easily escalate. According to Hemdani the issues that concern Kirkuk are political instability, terrorism and lack of dialogue.
The Kurdish leaders are worried and concerned about the USA pullout plan because of the lack of influence they will have in the future. The Maliki administration intends on buying F16 jets from USA, and this further worries Kurdish administration about the future intentions of the Maliki-led government. Nothing seems certain about the future of Iraq in a changing Middle East, with revolution sweeping neighboring regions such as Egypt and Tunisia. However, there is no doubt that the Kurds will not give up on reclaiming their rights in Kirkuk or other Arabized region.
Political commentators have said, if the USA occupation of Iraq was a mistake, then the pull-out plan is a bigger mistake because many sensitive issues within Iraq still remain unresolved. For instance, the existence of political militias in Iraq is a serious problem that still remains.
There is an incredible amount of concern given to the security of Iraq, and while we examine the security issues that Iraq faces, what is often forgotten about is the social problems that are neglected in the process. Iraq was once home to a generation of intellectuals that were boasted about throughout Middle East. It was a region that people came to be educated, a place where female scholarship thrived, and where scientific discoveries were rife. Now this beautiful region has turned into a sickening game of power. The issues of security are given priority, but in the future there will be greater issues with the culture the past ten years of war and instability has created.
A view of a mosque inside Kirkuk's ancient citadel.