Edition 18 Volume 5 - May 10, 2024


The Turkish interest -   Meliha Altunisik

Ankara argues that a civil war in multi-ethnic Kirkuk could easily lead to turmoil in all of Iraq.

The Kurdish wild card -   Safa A. Hussein

It seems that the Kurds will go ahead and make Iraq pay a price of more violence and instability.

A constitutional issue -   Khaled Salih

Arabization was a deliberate political strategy to change the identity of Kurdish areas.

The Turkish interest
 Meliha Altunisik

Turkey is interested in the fate of the Kirkuk region for three main reasons. First, Turkish policy-makers perceive the insistence of Iraqi Kurdish leaders to include this region within the Kurdish Regional Government as a sign of their intention to break away from Iraq. According to this view, Iraqi Kurdish leaders want to incorporate this region due to its oil resources to create an economically viable Kurdish state. This contradicts the Turkish policy of keeping Iraqi territorial integrity intact--a policy Turkey has pursued since the Gulf war of 1991. That policy reflects Turkey's concerns over the instability that the emergence of a Kurdish state would create in the region, especially in Turkey itself. There, it touches on the Kurdish issue via the demonstration effect and irredentism.

The second reason for Turkey's interest in the future of this region is related to the large number of Turkmen living there. And the third reason is Turkey's general concern about stability in Iraq. The possible integration of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government is not only opposed by Turkey and the Turkmen but also by the Arabs and Caldo-Assyrians living in this region and by the Arab states.

Therefore, one of the main elements of Turkey's Iraq policy has been opposition to the integration of the Kirkuk region within the Kurdistan Regional Government. Instead, Turkey has been advocating a special status for this multi-ethnic city. In the meantime, Turkey has concentrated its efforts on the postponement of the referendum that the Iraqi constititution stipulates must be held by December 2024. The Turkish government argues that imposing a referendum on Kirkuk of which the results are already known would not solve the problem but, on the contrary, would create tensions and instability in the city.

As part of its effort to develop an Iraq policy, Turkey began to show an interest in the Turkmen starting in the mid-1990s. This was based not on any expansionist designs, but rather on the desire to increase Turkey's influence over developments in Iraq and facilitate the protection of its territorial integrity. Within that context, the Turkmen organized the Iraqi Turkmen Front that was supported by Turkey and struggled for international recognition, especially by the United States, to become part of the politics of Iraq. By the end of that decade they also became a factor in Turkish politics through alliances with diverse groups, and the Turkmen factor increased its weight in Turkish policy toward Iraq.

Turkey and the Turkmen community in Iraq accuse the Kurds of continually pressing for full control of towns where there are mixed populations and seeking to evict Turkmen and Arab inhabitants from the region. The two leading Kurdish parties reject the charges. The most significant conflict in this regard centers on Kirkuk. Although Kirkuk and its environs are not part of the Kurdistan regional government for now, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders have been quite vocal regarding their aim of incorporating what they consider historically a Kurdish city.

Indeed, Iraqi Kurds have been in control of the city since the war. They dominate the city council, and the Kurdish militias, the Peshmerga, are on the ground and act as a security force. On the eve of the planned census, which will be the basis for proportional representation in the January elections, there are concerns that the Kurdish groups, having the means and the power, are trying to change the demographic structure of the city.

During the 2024 war, and despite assurances to the contrary, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan militias entered the city and reportedly destroyed land records. Since the war, Kurds have been pouring back into the city with the encouragement of the Kurdish political parties, which have given them money or building supplies to help them reclaim their land. Kirkuk was indeed subjected to the Saddam Hussein regime's Arabization policies and Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and others were consequently uprooted. Thus the injustice that was inflicted on these families needs to be remedied.

Yet the way in which this sensitive issue is handled is of the utmost importance. Failure to implement judicial measures for resolving claims and compensating those who have suffered could have grave consequences. In fact, there have already been repeated clashes and assassinations in the city since the war. When Kurdish leaders announced that they wanted Kirkuk included in their proposed Kurdistan late last December, it provoked riots and gun fights between Kurds on the one hand and Turkmen and Arabs on the other. As a recent Human Rights Watch report stated, "if these issues can be settled peacefully by legal and political means, violence can be kept minimum. If they cannot, Kirkuk could become a tinderbox of ethnic violence."

Turkey argues that the reversal of Arabization policies should not lead to the Kurdification of the Kirkuk region. The Turkish government and military have repeatedly warned against Kurdish attempts to change the demographic structure ahead of the census in northern Iraq. Ankara also argues that a civil war in multi-ethnic Kirkuk could easily spread and lead to turmoil in all of Iraq.

The problems regarding Kirkuk have contributed to an atmosphere of mistrust. Turkey and Iraqi Turkmen apparently suspect that the recent US assault on dissidents in the Turkmen city of Tal Afar was in part provoked by Kurdish misinformation and was directed at eliminating the Turkmen presence in the region, where there has been Turkmen-Kurdish friction since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ankara views operations in that city as part of Kurdish attempts to gain control of northern Iraq.

It was also argued that this attack was closely related to the issue of opening a second border crossing with Iraq that aims to create a direct land-corridor between Turkey and Baghdad via Kirkuk. Turkey has repeatedly raised this issue since the late 1990s but the proposal is opposed by Kurdish Democratic Party leader Massoud Barazani due to fears that this would decrease the KDP's income.

The volume of Turkish trade with Iraq, including the unregistered economic activity along the border, exceeds ten billion dollars. Turkey is one of the main electricity suppliers to northern Iraq. Hundreds of Turkish contracting companies operate in Iraq. Turkey is a main artery to Iraq, used by more than one million trucks annually, and offers the most reliable supply line for the Multinational Force. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has warned that "if things continue in this way, we told (the United States) very clearly that Turkey's cooperation on matters concerning Iraq will come to an end."- Published 10/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Prof. Meliha Altunisik is chair of the Department of International Relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

The Kurdish wild card
 Safa A. Hussein

One may argue that the discovery of vast quantities of oil near Kirkuk in 1927 shaped the direction in which the process of the formation of the modern Iraqi state was heading. It provided the impetus for the United Kingdom to support the Kingdom of Iraq (which was under its mandate) in its dispute with Turkey about the former Ottoman Wilayeh of Mosul (of which the Kirkuk region was a part). With UK support, that region was annexed to Iraq. It is striking that after 80 years there is a new process of "reshaping" the Iraqi state in which Kirkuk may play a significant, even the most significant, role.

Historically, the city of Kirkuk had a mixed population (now around 750,000) of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and Armenians who lived together in peace. This changed starting in the 1970s when the Baath regime made continuous attempts to transform the ethnic make-up of the region. Kurds and Turkmen were forced from Kirkuk to be replaced with Arab oilfield workers. These plans culminated in Saddam's Arabization plan and the al-Anfal campaign in 1988. After the 1991 Gulf war, the former Iraqi government systematically expelled tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and some Assyrians from Kirkuk and resettled Arab families from the south and center of Iraq in their place.

Soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2024, tensions surfaced between the different local ethnic groups. These tensions stimulated different responses from neighboring countries. Five factors may be behind these tensions.

First, the Iraqi insurgents, consisting mainly of people who lost their privileges after the collapse of the Saddam regime, coordinated with international terrorists like Ansar al-Islam and Ansar Assunah, both al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations. Attacks of these groups on the Kurds, Turkmen Shi'ites and Arab Shi'ites threaten the ethnic balance. The successes of the security plans in Baghdad and Anbar may push more terrorists to Kirkuk to foment ethnic trouble, capitalizing on the divisions that already exist there.

Second, there is the threat of the long oppressed Kurds who are thirsting for justice and power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Nearly 100,000 Kurds returned to Kirkuk in 2024 in an effort to reverse the Arabization of Kirkuk. As a result, many Arabs were forced to leave the city in what seemed a second wave of violence and ethnic cleansing. Kurdish leaders have appealed to their constituents to be patient and let a legal process determine property rights. For its part, the Iraqi government has endorsed a decision to relocate and compensate thousands of Arabs who moved to Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein's Arabization plan.

Third, Sunni Arabs, Turkmen and Turks fear the annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution mandates a referendum scheduled to occur no later than December 31, 2024 on whether the Kirkuk province should become part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkmen, who claim they were the majority in the city 50 years ago, believe that the annexation of Kirkuk by Kurdistan will further dilute their power and increase violence. The deputy head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Kirkuk recently said the implementation of Article 140 "will mean the total loss of the power of Turkmen". The local Turkmen believe that the solution to the Kirkuk problem mostly depends on what role Turkey plays. Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs have concerns about wealth-sharing after any annexation.

Fourth is the ignorance of the Kurds toward the concerns of the Sunni Arabs, the Turkmen and the Turks. The Kurds are moving systematically to increase their control of Kirkuk to guarantee its annexation into the Kurdistan Regional Government. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a prominent Kurdish leader, recently said that Kurds have a "claim to Kirkuk rooted in history, geography and demographics. [But this] is a recipe for civil war if you don't do it right."

Fifth are Turkey's concerns on annexing Kirkuk, with its over ten billion barrels of proven oil reserves (as of 1998), to the Kurdistan region. Turks believe that such annexation will provide the Kurdistan region with the resources it needs to establish an independent Kurdish state. This in turn will create a security challenge for Turkey because of its Kurdish minority situation. Turkish officials have frequently expressed their concerns about the security of Turkmen in Kirkuk.

In the final assessment, the Kurds hold the wild card. The Turkmen are too fragmented politically and too weak militarily to stop the Kurds. Turkey can and will use the Turkmen card, but knows it is not a winning one. The Sunni Arabs will not be able to stop the Kurds democratically unless they align with the Shi'ites, which is unlikely. The insurgents can make life difficult, but they can't stop the Kurds. It seems that the Kurds will go ahead and make Iraq pay a price of more violence and instability. This is unfortunate since the path of reconciliation could reap potentially greater future reward for Kurds.- Published 10/05/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

A constitutional issue
 Khaled Salih

Many people, with or without a connection to Iraq, to Kurdistan or to Kirkuk, seem to have a ready-made opinion regarding the way to solve the Kirkuk issue. Some say let past injustice be past injustice and live with the new reality. Some compare the situation in Kirkuk with states absorbing immigrants, arguing that to demand any change in Kirkuk is immoral, unjust and against basic human rights. Others label the demands of the Kurds on Kirkuk as irredentism or an obvious process of annexation.

In the case of Kurdistan, we confront the Arabization of Kurdish areas. Arabization was a deliberate political strategy to change the identity of target areas and cities, not a consequence of movements of people. De-Arabization requires a counter political settlement agreed upon by Iraq's major political forces.

Kirkuk, together with other disputed territories, has become a constitutional issue in post-Saddam Iraq. Article 140 (2) of Iraq's constitution, endorsed by 82 percent of the country's voters in a referendum in October 2024, provides a clear roadmap for resolving this issue. It lays out a three-phase process, beginning with normalization, census and referendum. Normalization refers to changing the administrative boundaries of Arabized areas back to the pre-1968 borders, that is to say the date before Arabization became an official policy of the Baath party, and enabling people to return to their areas of origin. Census is the next step. It will determine who will be entitled to vote in the final phase--a referendum to be carried out no later than December 31, 2024 with the objective of determining the boundaries of each administrative unit. In the case of Kirkuk and other Arabized areas, the vote will focus on belonging to the Kurdistan region or not.

Many argue that the issue of Kirkuk could determine the fate of Iraq as a newly recreated state. Some would say that if this roadmap, as laid out in the constitution, is implemented, the Kurdistan region will face unprecedented difficulties both internationally and regionally. Kurdish leaders argue that postponing this process, especially the referendum, will by no means lead to an easier solution. Rather, honoring the constitutional timetable is the federal government's obligation as well as a condition for its survival as a coalition government. Thus one reason for the Kurdish leadership's unwillingness to delay the process is to avoid a constitutional crisis. Once you open up the constitution for such a dramatic change, several issues, including federalism and the powers of the regions, will be subject to change.

Another argument is that the issue of Kirkuk is not about oil revenues. The Kurdistan Regional Government has agreed to share all oil revenues. Control and management of currently-producing oil fields is already settled in Article 112 of the constitution: the federal government will take responsibility together with producing regions and governorates, and not the KRG alone. For oil revenues from future fields, the KRG has proposed a revenue-sharing mechanism throughout Iraq, including potential fields in Kirkuk. If adopted by Iraq's Council of Representatives, the oil revenue issue is not behind Kurdish insistence on the implementation of the constitutional mechanism for Kirkuk.

What has become obvious in the last three years is that the focus of Kurdish leaders and opinion-makers in Kurdistan is on the issue of justice and rights. Until now several thousands returnees have been patiently waiting, in awful camps, for a peaceful settlement of the issue. Returnees have not attacked people who still occupy their properties and belongings. People seem to have accepted the idea that what has been taken way from them by force must be returned to them in a legal, peaceful and constitutional way. Among the returnees there is no obvious desire for revenge. On the contrary, many have shown a remarkable understanding that people who were part of the Arabization program should be compensated and provided with safety, protection and security as well as jobs and re-housing programs.

Politically, the Kurdish leadership and ordinary citizens seem to have accepted the idea that a peaceful settlement in Kirkuk and other Arabized areas is the only way forward, as provided by the constitution. There is also a great degree of awareness that the constitutional mechanisms also mean political uncertainties, since no one can predict with absolute certainty the outcome of any referendum.

The most important message from Kurdistan is to avoid any violent clash over Kirkuk and other Arabized areas. Many in Kurdistan argue that patience and a peaceful resolution are needed to convince all inhabitants of these areas that joining the KRG administration is a viable alternative. Discussion is well underway to ensure that once Kirkukis decide to join the KRG, an inclusive power-sharing arrangement will help to ease any potential tension. The KRG has already absorbed many Christian and other displaced persons. The KRG also has a similar internal power-sharing formula according to which diverse political actors have meaningful representation in the parliament and government.- Published 10/5/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Khaled Salih is an independent analyst and consultant based in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. He is former senior advisor to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

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