Kirkuk in the Balance

This is the third letter written for the Gazette by Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and Director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. He has been working in H═wler (Erbil) as a constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan National Assembly, and was part of an international advisory team assisting Kurdistan’s negotiators during the making of the Transitional Administrative Law. His forthcoming book, The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq (which he co-edited with John McGarry and Khaled Salih), will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

This past March O’Leary visited the oil-rich city and governorate of Kirkuk in what Arabs and Turks call northern Iraq and Kurds call Kurdistan, interviewing local politicians, community leaders, and returned refugees.

After the formal restoration of its sovereignty this summer, one territory will be the weathervane of interethnic relations in Iraq. The city and the “governorate” (province) of Kirkuk are the most hotly contested of Iraq’s “disputed areas.” The people of Kurdistan, especially its Kurdish majority, regard both as part of their national territory, which they believe should be part of the official region of Kurdistan in any permanent constitution. Non-Kurds, especially in the city, mostly resist these arguments, as do most Sunni and Shi‘a Arab politicians throughout Iraq. The final status of Kirkuk was not resolved in the making of the Transitional Administrative Law [“Gazetteer,” May/June], and will have to be settled in the negotiation of the permanent constitution.

The last relatively reliable census in Iraq was held in 1957, but the Ba‘thists subsequently tampered with its records. Of the three largest communities in the governorate—Arabs, Turkomen, and Kurds—the Kurds constituted the plurality, approximately 48 percent of the governorate as a whole (49 percent if unknowns and foreign citizens are excluded). Outside of Kirkuk city, Kurds were indisputably the majority community. By contrast, in the city—situated in the middle of the governorate, and then home to less than a third of the governorate’s population—Turkomen (37.6 percent) were the largest group, just outnumbering Kurds (33.3 percent), who in turn outnumbered Arabs (22.5 percent). There was a significant category of “unknowns” (4.2 per cent) who were probably mostly illiterate Kurds, and it is very possible that the official classifications underestimated Kurdish numbers. The most objective summary is that in 1957 Kirkuk was a multi-ethnic city, surrounded by a larger and heavily Kurdish population in the rest of the governorate.

What the demographic situation is in 2004 no one knows for certain. In the interim, especially under Saddam’s Ba‘thists, the city and the governorate have been subject to brutal demographic engineering (including expulsions, settler colonization, and the stripping of locals of their nationality). Nevertheless all the populations have probably grown in size since 1957, although Kurds and Arabs have likely had higher birth-rates than Turkomen and Assyrians. I heard and received absurd estimates of their current size from all communities.

Saddam’s Arabization project was far from complete because in the 1990s he continued to induce Arab settlers to settle in Kirkuk and to expel and “de-nationalize” its Kurds, Turkomen, and Assyrians. Although he had re-named the governorate Tami‘m (“Nationalization”), many non-Arabs had not yet been nationalized.

The return of some Kurdish expellees in 2003, and the flight of some Arab settlers, has led to a de facto reversal of some of Saddam’s work. But it is uncertain what the demographic and electoral picture will be even if all expelled Kurds return and the illegitimate settlers are deprived of the right to vote on Kirkuk’s future. My guess, and it is just that, is that Kurds would be at least the plurality group in the city, and the majority group in the governorate.

Incorporating Kirkuk governorate and city in an autonomous (or independent) Kurdistan has been a consistent objective of Kurdish nationalists. They have four persuasive sets of arguments. The first is geographic. Any traveler by road from H═wler (Erbil) to Kirkuk city, even today, observes no visible geographic demarcation between Kirkuk and actually existing Kurdistan.

The second set of arguments is historic and national. The region has been part of Kurdish-speaking civilization for at least two centuries, and Kurds maintain that even though the governorate has numerous significant minorities, that should not affect its national status as part of Kurdistan. They also argue that they have treated and would continue to treat their minorities much better than Arab or Ba‘thist governments treated Kurds.

The third medley of arguments is demographic. Kurds argue that were it not for deliberate demographic manipulation they would constitute the majority group in both the region and the city. That manipulation has taken multiple forms over the last century: encouraging Arab settlers to develop the region’s agriculture; preferential hiring of non-Kurds in the oil field and related industries; the expulsion of Kurds (and Turkomen) from the city and the region; falsification of citizenship records; confiscation of properties; and the financial encouragement of Arab settlers, largely Sh‘ia Arabs from the South, to settle in the city. Even the boundaries of the governorate were re-drawn by Saddam to exclude strongly Kurdish-majority rural zones and to incorporate strongly non-Kurdish (mostly Sunni Arab) rural zones.

The fourth stream of Kurdish argument is moral: recent ethnic expulsion and coercive “Arabization” should not be rewarded and treated as irreversible “facts on the ground.” Moreover, efforts to reverse these injustices should not be treated as equivalent to the original crimes. Had there been no expulsion, employment discrimination, or induced settlements, it would be beyond question that the region is Kurdish by geography, history, and demographic head-count.

There is no doubt, of course, that Kurds’ geographic, historic, national, demographic, and moral arguments are also motivated by Kirkuk’s natural resources, which would dramatically boost Kurdistan’s development prospects.

Non-Kurds in Kirkuk city and governorate are differentiated. They are not Kurdish politically, and they do not favor an independent Kurdistan. On the other hand, they are not uniformly hostile to Kurds or toward an officially recognized Kurdistan region, and most, when pressed, recognize that the Kurds have suffered injustices. The city’s professional Assyrians, mostly Christians affiliated with the Catholic church, appear intent on keeping their heads down, and would live with any settlement that minimized the threat of communal violence.

In this highly residentially segregated city, Arab and Turkomen districts are materially much better off, with the former being newer and more desirable than the latter. I was told that the Ba‘thists had manipulated planning regulations to prevent Kurds and Turkomen from maintaining their properties, which meant that many were now beyond repair.

Some Arab politicians in the city told me that Arabs are now the majority in the city; that Kirkuk is, and has been, an Iraqi city; and that it is the right of citizens everywhere to settle where they will within a state. Some insisted that the sole reason for the Kurdish claim to Kirkuk is oil. Some gravely warned me that the Kurdish claim and efforts to reverse what some Arabs call “alleged expulsions” will create a crisis and cause a civil war. They also accuse the Kurdish peshmerga of organizing the expulsion of Arabs. (This was denied by Kurdish spokesmen, and was not supported by Assyrians and Turkomen with whom I spoke.)

There is, however, a noticeable difference in viewpoints between the Sunni and Shi‘a Arab politicians. The former, “old city” Arabs are keener on constructive cross-community relations, and are recognized to have this orientation by local Kurds. The more recently arrived Shi‘a Arabs appear both more antagonistic and fearful toward Kurds, and more concerned to narrate Shi‘a grievances in the South than the ones experienced by Kurds “in the North.”

When I spoke with the impoverished Kurdish returnees, especially the younger adolescents, they distinguished the city’s Arabs by religion, Shi‘a and Sunni, and favored the latter. That distinction, they assured me, was based on the fact that the former are mostly recent settlers (most Kurds are Sunni Muslims). But religious sect has become code for determining their status as settlers or natives, a potential catalyst for deepening conflict.

Turkomen politicians are not homogeneous in their readings of the city’s recent history, although they privately concede that they have probably lost their plurality status. The Turkomen politicians sponsored from Ankara, Turkey’s capital, comprise the Turkomen Front. They find it difficult to explain why Turkey did nothing for them during the high-tide of Saddam’s Arabization, and have no good answers when told that their estimates of the Turkomen population in Iraq and Kirkuk require preposterously sized Turkomen families who are nowhere to be found.

The Turkomen Shi‘a politicians, by contrast, have no truck with secularist Turkey or the Turkomen Front, and look likely to create alliances with Shi‘a Arab politicians elsewhere in Iraq. Erfak Kirkuly, the Secretary-General of the Iraqi Turkomen People’s Party and the Assistant Governor on the City Council, told me: “We are a national community, but we did not come from Turkey; we do not want to be used as political pawns [by Ankara]; we can sort out our own matters; we should compete not on the basis of ethnicity but on the question, ‘Who serves Kirkuk best?’”

Like all non-Arabs I spoke with, Kirkuly remarked on the fact that Kirkuk is the richest city in the world, if valued by the resources underneath it, but has the worst services of any major city in Iraq. He said soberly that 35 years of Ba‘thism (1968-2003) had done nothing for Kirkuk except “planting the seeds of hatred”—Turkomen, he noted, were not allowed to register properties or shops, and their parents were given the “choice” of Arabic names for their children. The experience of shared oppression has not, however, unified Turkomen and Kurds against Arabs.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Kirkuk’s status was an issue in which all the northern communities in Iraq—Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkomen, and Assyrians—had an emotional and material stake. But now, thanks to Saddam’s manipulations, all communities in Iraq, and all their responsible and ambitious politicians, have emotional and material stakes in its territorial status. At interfaces in the segregated city ugly episodes have occurred and will continue to occur. The city has the potential to resemble a combination of Beirut and Belfast—with more dangerous weaponry. Yet perhaps precisely because the city has oil, determined efforts may be made to stop that.

What should be done? There are no easy answers. Within the city it is vital to have sustained power-sharing arrangements based on proportional representation, and that there be a representative police service. A fair process is required to rectify injustices. The Iraqi Property Claims Commission must be seen to work—and to return properties or compensate those who lost out. There must be funding to “pay off” those who were induced to come—yes, they will benefit twice, from Saddam and now again, but the price of peace may be worth it. The benefits of oil resources should be fairly distributed. The natural resources of Kirkuk must benefit all the local populations, and funds must be set aside to restore and create a decent material infrastructure for the city. Fair employment in the oil industry is a sine qua non of social peace.

But the trickiest question is territorial: should the region, and the city within it, be part of Kurdistan or not? Both were liberated by Kurdish peshmerga with American oversight. The Americans then instructed the Kurdish forces to withdraw, which they did. Under the status quo Kirkuk remains a governorate, and its boundaries cannot be adjusted until the making of the permanent constitution. In the Transitional Administrative Law, a fair process was agreed upon to resolve its final status, with the possibility of international mediation if key politicians cannot agree. If the property-restitution process works fairly, then—after the return of the refugees and after the departure of some settlers—the boundaries of Kirkuk governorate might be restored to what they were before (although the exact date will likely be a subject of dispute).

A referendum would then be held. If Kirkuk governorate voted to become part of Kurdistan, then sub-districts adjacent to the rest of Iraq might be given the right to vote to opt-out. Likewise, if it voted to stay part of Iraq, then sub-districts adjacent to actually existing Kurdistan might be given the right to opt-in to Kurdistan.

In my view, whatever the final status of the territory, or bits of the territory, it is vital that durable power-sharing arrangements be created within the city that will protect all of its communities, irrespective of the city’s final status. I did not leave the city believing that the Coalition Provisional Authority had laid the foundations for that necessity. What has made me more pessimistic since is the apparent willingness of the Bush administration, in its eagerness to hand over Iraq to the United Nations, to drop the Transitional Administrative Law. Without the latter’s negotiated provisions it is very difficult to foresee constructive compromise over Kirkuk. An implosion is in the cards unless Washington smartens its act, and lately there has been precious little evidence of smartness.

—Brendan O’Leary

ę 2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 07/01/04


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