Crisis in Kirkuk

With immense oil reserves and a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens, Kirkuk's history has been scarred by interethnic violence and state-sponsored ethnic cleansing. This book offers a dispassionate analysis of the struggle for control of Kirkuk, arguing that Iraq's future stability depends on resolving the crisis in this region.

Crisis in Kirkuk
The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise

Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield

2009 | 312 pages | Cloth $59.95
Political Science
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Kirkuk before Iraq
Chapter 2. Kirkuk in the Twentieth Century

Chapter 3. The Post-2003 Iraqi Context
Chapter 4. The Turkmen Perspective: The Demise of a Formerly Dominant Community
Chapter 5. The Kurdish Perspective: Gaining "Jerusalem"
Chapter 6. The Arab Perspective: Applying the Old Rules

Chapter 7. The Kurds Ascendant
Chapter 8. The Kurds Triumphant
Chapter 9. The Kurds Denied

Chapter 10. The Struggle for Kirkuk: Problems of Process
Chapter 11. The Struggle for Kirkuk: Problems of Final Status
Chapter 12. The Struggle for Kirkuk: Future Governance


List of People Interviewed

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Iraq has witnessed many dates of significance in recent years. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent overthrow of the Ba'th regime, events in Iraq have dominated the attention of the world's media, and rarely a day has passed that did not experience some momentous or bloody occurrence. Compared with many previous months, however, July 2008 was quiet. Certainly, political arguments continued to rage in Baghdad among different political factions, and the security situation, while considerably better than in previous years, still remained a cause for concern. Controversial issues remained unresolved, and actions taken by the Iraqi government continued to gain as many, if not more, detractors than supporters. Such actions included the ongoing security push against rogue Sunni and Shi'i elements (namely those Sunni tribes capable of challenging the government, and the Shi'i jaish al-Mahdi militia of Muqtada al-Sadr); the tense negotiations with the US government over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and a wider Strategic Agreement, as well as the grueling political struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government's Ministry of Oil over the interpretation of the constitution's provisions for the management of Iraq's oil reserves also served to divide opinion within the government and across the country at large. However, compared to the rest of the period since 2003, July 2008 did not grip the attention of the world's media.

Perhaps it should have. While there were some indications of a degree of normalcy returning to Iraq following the surge of US forces over preceding months, combined with a degree of optimism in the media in general that Iraq had, at last, turned a corner, the unresolved question concerning the future of the city and province of Kirkuk took on new importance in July 2008. As a city divided among different ethnic groups—Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs (with a smaller Christian community)—and with groups clinging to mutually incompatible visions of what Kirkuk's future should be, Kirkuk had long been considered an ethnic powder keg waiting to explode. Yet finding a resolution to the complex problem of Kirkuk's future status has proven elusive, and by July 2008 time had effectively run out.

In the "new Iraq" the Kurds have become an important force in the politics of the state. They actively participated in the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), hastily scrabbled together following Saddam's removal, and were then leading members of the Iraqi Transitional Government (ITG) and eventually the first sovereign government formed after the elections of December 2005. In the December elections and, more importantly, the preceding referendum that ratified the draft constitution, the Kurds had shown that they not only possessed military power (their forces were, relatively speaking, far more capable than those of other militias and even the Iraqi army) but also enjoyed the popular support of an increasingly nationalist Kurdish populace. For the Kurds, certain issues had to be resolved in the new Iraq, and the future of Kirkuk was at the forefront of these. Yet allowing Kirkuk to join with the Kurdistan Region was not straightforward. Kirkuk is important not just to the Kurdish community. It is home to a sizable number of Turkmens who relate their presence to the status they enjoyed during the time of the Ottoman Empire. The Arab community too views its presence there as legitimate and proof that Kirkuk, far from being Kurdish or Turkmen, is in fact nothing less than Iraqi. As Kirkuk was the center of Iraq's northern oil industry, sitting atop one of the country's supergiant oil fields, preserving Kirkuk's identity as an Iraqi city was a key element of state policy for all regimes in modern Iraq, and this discourse remains strong even in the post-2003 setting.

Even more important than the demographic issue is the powerful symbolism of Kirkuk. Clearly, Kirkuk is important for the Kurds; it is the city they had never held and over which they have fought with the Iraqi government for the best part of fifty years. Yet, Kirkuk also holds significance for Turkmens as a residual symbol of their dominance and "greatness" under the Ottomans, and for Arabs, it is seen as the epitome of a multicultural Iraq. In essence, Kirkuk is evidence of Iraq's ability to overcome communal identities and to embrace an all-encompassing notion of "Iraqiness." Viewed this way, "losing" Kirkuk to Kurdistan would be recognition of the failure of the Iraqi national project and an acknowledgment not only of the distinctiveness of the Kurds but also of their newfound ability to project power in the post-Saddam environment.

With the decision on Kirkuk's future postponed for as long as possible, Article 140 of the constitution of 2005 required a referendum on Kirkuk's future status to be held by the end of 2007. Following months of studied inaction leading up to this date, a six-month extension emerged following an intervention by the United Nations (UN) special representative of the secretary general, Staffan de Mistura. For Kurdish leaders, the extension exposed them to vociferous criticism from their grassroots supporters and a feisty Kurdish media. After riding a wave of popular support by promising to restore Kirkuk to Kurdistan, they now looked weak and ineffectual. From this point on, the Kurdish leadership had little choice but to move more aggressively in negotiations with Baghdad. Those who opposed Kurdish ambitions realized that the facts on the ground very much favored the Kurds. Recognizing that there was little prospect of reversing the Kurds' increasing numerical dominance in Kirkuk, they instead sought to constrain the Kurds by obstructing, and ultimately eliminating, the possibility of a referendum. The non-Kurdish blocs in the Iraqi parliament referred Article 140 to the constitutional court to seek a ruling on whether an article not implemented by an agreed date indeed remained valid.

With the six-month extension set to expire in June 2008, the verbal exchanges between Baghdad and the Kurdish region's capital Erbil intensified, with the Kurds believing that Baghdad was playing for time, and Baghdad chastening the Kurds for attempting to impose what was seen as a fait accompli on Kirkuk and its multiethnic population. As Kirkuk's future was intrinsically tied to other significant issues that divided Erbil (the Kurdistan Region's capital) and Baghdad—namely, over the draft oil law (and specifically Kurdistan's right to sign Exploration and Production Sharing Agreements [EPSAs] independently of Baghdad) and the identification of what had become known as the "disputed internal boundary" between the Kurdistan Region and the rest of Iraq—the status of Kirkuk rapidly assumed a position of unparalleled prominence in the politics of Iraq.

The summer months of 2008 saw this tension reach a breaking point. Following the rejection by all parties (Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens) in June of a UN strategy aimed at resolving the status of less contentious territories contested by the KRG and the Iraqi government, the Arab blocs in parliament met in secret on 22 July to pass a provincial elections bill that included a specific proposal regarding Kirkuk. While the bill specified electoral procedures for the rest of Iraq, Kirkuk was in effect removed from the democratic process by Article 24 of the bill, which required power in Kirkuk to be shared equally among the major ethnic communities. The bill was passed by 127 of 142 members of parliament (MPs)—marginally a quorum but without any Kurdish representation present. With parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud Mashadani organizing a secret ballot to pass the bill (in contravention of parliamentary procedure), it was straightforward for President Jalal Talabani—one of the two principal Kurdish leaders—to use his veto power and block the progression of the bill into law. The situation was not resolved before parliament went into its summer recess, leaving no agreement on the provincial elections law and no agreement on the future status of Kirkuk.

This incident seriously poisoned the political atmosphere. For the Kurds, the actions of Mashadani and the parliamentarians who voted in the secret ballot did little to convince them that they were being treated as full and equal partners in the governing of the country. Indeed, the KRG ominously noted that "[this action] raises much doubt on previous coalitions and political agreements which have been formed between many parties and the political leadership in Kurdistan." Similarly, Arab and Turkmen parliamentarians were quick to accuse the Kurdish leadership, especially President Talabani, of working not in the interests of Iraq but in the furtherance of parochial (Kurdish) aims. In effect, the standoff over Kirkuk not only had brought Iraqi political life to a grinding halt but also had begun to unravel the fragile political consensus that underpinned it.

It is no exaggeration to assert that the future of Iraq hinges on finding a resolution to the problem of Kirkuk's status in a way that is mutually tolerable to all parties. Any attempt by the Kurds to impose a solution by forcibly annexing Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Region risks plunging northern Iraq into an indefinite period of violent ethnic upheaval; but equally, any effort to force an unacceptable solution on the Kurds will inevitably produce a similar outcome. The obvious solution is some form of compromise that, by definition, gives all interested parties something but gives no party everything. If the issue of Kirkuk is to be resolved peacefully, then compromise is inevitable. Most would also view compromise as normatively desirable. At its core, democracy involves the peaceful resolution of contentious political debates through a willingness to cut deals and compromise. Even in so-called winner-take-all majoritarian political systems, norms of compromise and consensus are the lifeblood of democratic decision making. Compromise is, thus, both pragmatically and normatively desirable, and once this is clearly understood, then the terms of debate acquire immediate clarity.

Indeed, the purpose of this book is not to advocate on behalf of one or another particular ethnic group or to offer one specific solution to the Kirkuk problem. The purpose is to clarify the terms of debate. Most of the "solutions" proposed by Western observers and by the involved parties themselves are neither viable nor desirable because they are not compromises. Further, they are disingenuous "solutions" because, while masquerading as compromises, their implementation will inevitably require the application of violence by one side on the other. On both sides of the Kirkuk debate, there may be those who welcome the prospect of a violent solution, but if Iraq is to have any future as a stable and coherent territorial entity, then the future status of Kirkuk has to be resolved in a peaceful manner, and this requires compromise.

Structure of the Book

Part I of the book deals with Kirkuk's pre-2003 history. For the sake of analytical convenience, we identify two discrete periods in Kirkuk's historical development. The first of these begins with Kirkuk's founding and early existence as a town or city located in the borderlands of empires, and it ends in 1918 with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. This is, of course, a wide span of history rich in social and cultural complexity, although our treatment of the period is unfortunately but necessarily brief. The intent is to identify, however superficially, the origins of the different peoples of modern Kirkuk and how they perceive their own history and, importantly, those of their neighbors. The fact that Kirkuk, especially during the later parts of this first period (that is, from the seventeenth century on), was by all accounts a peaceful, multiethnic city no more troubled in terms of its politics or social relations than others in the region serves as a useful point of comparison for what then develops in the twentieth century.

We then progress to consider Kirkuk's traumatic twentieth-century history, charting the imperial machinations that saw the Mosul vilayet (the province in which Kirkuk lay) joined to the vilayets of Baghdad and Basra to form the modern state of Iraq, the discovery of exploitable reserves of oil, and how these reserves altered the outlook of the British and catalyzed the new Iraqi state's drive to homogenize (Arabize) Iraq's population in regions of strategic value. Dynamics are intertwined, making it problematic to take any particular development, such as interethnic hostility, in isolation from other events or conditions, such as the presence of oil. Yet it was in the twentieth century that ethnic identities crystallized and assumed political and social salience through a combination of deliberate state policies, dormant socioeconomic circumstances, and constructed ancient myths.

Part II shifts to an examination of Kirkuk's history from the perspective of each of its three principal communities—Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens. The intent here is to highlight how the same shared history has come to be interpreted in radically different ways by the major communities. The so-called "massacre" of 1959, for example, forms the centerpiece of a distinctively Turkmen narrative of Kirkuk's recent history and provides part of the explanation for why most Turkmen in Kirkuk strongly oppose Kurdish control. For the Kurds, meanwhile, the ruthless Arabization policy conducted during the years of the Ba'th regime is the defining characteristic of Kirkuk's recent history. In turn, this helps explain why reversing the effects of this policy, and, as the Kurds see it, restoring Kirkuk to its rightful place at the heart of the Kurdistan Region, has a compelling emotional and symbolic significance that transcends material concerns about control over Kirkuk's oil reserves. These mutually incompatible (and often antagonistic) narratives illustrate just how difficult it is to furnish a definitively objective history of Kirkuk. They also shed light on why the three communities have struggled to find common ground on even the most basic of empirical reference points, such as population numbers. At heart, the struggle for Kirkuk is a battle of "national" myths and narratives about identity and ownership that retain their potency even in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary. It is precisely this struggle to establish "truths" that makes the study of Kirkuk both frustratingly complex and endlessly fascinating.

Absent from the analysis is any detailed discussion of the Christian perspective. Often viewed as the "fourth" community in Kirkuk, the Chaldo-Assyrian Christian population has, tragically, dwindled to the point of political irrelevance both in Kirkuk and throughout most of northern Iraq. This absence is not intended to imply that the Christian perspective is somehow less "worthy" than those of other groups—indeed, of all groups, Christians have comfortably the strongest claim to being Kirkuk's original inhabitants. Rather, it reflects the naked political reality that Christian numbers are now so low as to be irrelevant to any determination of Kirkuk's future status.

The perspectives presented in Part II necessarily simplify a complex reality. This we fully acknowledge. None of Kirkuk's major ethnicities speaks with a single voice, and to refer to the "Kurdish view" or the "Arab perspective" implies a degree of intragroup homogeneity that is often not present. Where relevant, significant intragroup diversity is highlighted, but mostly our references to group perspectives are driven considerations of literary convenience rather than a deliberate intent to reify ethnicity.

Part III presents a detailed analysis of post-2003 political developments in Kirkuk and, more broadly, throughout Iraq. Predictably, the analysis reinforces the impression that Kirkuk is an issue of staggering complexity that has sucked in actors across multiple levels of analysis—local, regional, national, and international. As an analytical chronology of post-2003 developments in Kirkuk, the analysis charts the evolving competition for political control over governorate and city as well as tracking the Kurdish campaign at the national level to resolve the status of Kirkuk through constitutional means. The struggle for control of Kirkuk has taken place against a background of escalating insurgent violence, but major incidents of ethnically motivated violence among Kirkuk's various groups have been few and far between. In this sense, the image portrayed in the news media of Kirkuk as a "powder keg" or "tinderbox" of ethnic hatreds is largely inaccurate. The real story may, in fact, be the relative absence of large-scale ethnic violence in the face of the most severe provocation.

Part IV moves the analysis on from the substantive to the more conceptual. Chapter 10 provides a critical evaluation of the failure of the Article 58/140 process to yield a solution to the problem of Kirkuk and other disputed territories. The unsuccessful conclusion of the 140 process means that a new process needs to be put in place in order to determine the status of Kirkuk and to define the Kurds' boundary with the rest of Iraq. As the Kurds can no longer obtain everything they seek through an existing process, and the consequences of denying the Kurds any satisfaction on these contentious issues are potentially disastrous, compromise is the only way forward. Accordingly, Chapter 11 begins to establish the contours of what are and what are not potentially acceptable compromises. From issues of status, the analysis in Chapter 12 moves on to consider the core issue of governance. The purpose of the chapters in this section is not to identify the perfect solution to the problem of Kirkuk but rather to attempt to move the debate forward in a productive direction. If no side is willing or able to compromise on Kirkuk, then the issue is destined to end in bloodshed. If, however, all sides are willing to trade off losses in one area for gains in another (in other words, to compromise), then a peaceful solution is possible.

Iraq at the Kirkuk Crossroads

The events of July 2008 have galvanized Kurdish public opinion (as illustrated by a one-hundred-thousand-strong demonstration in Erbil on 29 July) behind the implementation of Article 140 and a referendum to determine Kirkuk's future. No longer able to present a diplomatic face on the subject, Kurdish leaders fell in line with public sentiment with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, declaring, "We will not allow the Kurdish people's achievements to be wrecked by the Iraqi parliament. Iraq will fall apart if the Iraqi constitution is violated." Matching this clear escalation in rhetoric were Iraqi parliamentarians in Baghdad, with the influential Wael Abd al-Latif accusing President Talabani of using his veto power unconstitutionally and demanding his resignation. In Kirkuk the situation took a turn for the worse. A suicide bombing of an anti-election-law demonstration (presumably with mainly Kurdish demonstrators) in the center of Kirkuk on 28 July left at least twelve people dead. Worse was to come on 15 August, with a further targeting of Kurds leaving some twenty-five dead. The fact that the tragedy was followed by hundreds of Kurds storming and then burning down the headquarters of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) (even though the US military believed the attack to have been carried out by an Al-Qaeda-associated group) emphasized the fact that ethnic tensions in the city were at a boiling point. By the fall of 2008 Iraq's future once again hung in the balance. Despite dramatic improvements in the security environment in most parts of Iraq, many core political issues remained unresolved, foremost among which was the issue of Kirkuk's future status. Unless and until Iraqi political leaders find the will to forge a mutually acceptable compromise on this issue, Iraq's future in its current territorial configuration will remain in doubt.