Kirkuk and the Kurdish borderlands - Iraq's "Bosnia."
The Kurdish autonomous north has long been held out as an example of peace and security for the rest of Iraq. Today, however, it threatens to become a source of its greatest instability and an issue which might tear Iraq apart. In particular, the question of the status of the mixed city of Kirkuk threatens to ignite civil war tensions that will reverberate throughout the country and possibly threaten the intervention of outside powers, especially Turkey.
Kirkuk is a mixed city, with a predominantly Kurdish population, on the southern edge but outside of the autonomous federal Kurdish governate. For the Kurds, Kirkuk is a highly emotive issue. They consider it a city for which they have struggled and sacrificed their blood and livelihoods at the cost of forced depopulation, Arabisation and genocide. The infamous chemical attacks at Anfal in 1988 were in villages around Kirkuk. Nevertheless, the Kurds remain the largest community and they are determined to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdish federal governate as its capital.
The most ancient peoples who can claim the right to the city and region of Kirkuk are not the Kurds but the Christians. However, they are such a tiny minority that they are not a feasible ruling group. Following them come the Kurds and then the Turkomans, who were mostly settled by the Ottoman Empire, After them there are the nomadic and indigenous Arabs tribes and, finally, there are the recent Arabs, who were settled (sometimes compulsorily) by Saddam Hussein's policy of "Arabisation" aimed at weakening Kurdish influence and power in the region. The Kurds argue that Kirkuk is essentially Kurdish and they want it as their capital, though they recognize the rights and existence of the Turkoman and Christian minorities. The Arabs, they say, should be repatriated (with financial) compensation, so that Kirkuk can become a fully Kurdish city again.
Indeed, such is the Kurds' power within the weak Iraqi state that they have effectively engineered a constitutional coup concerning the status of the city of Kirkuk. They have secured the right for a programme of de-Arabisation and a referendum on the status of the city, which will give them control. According to the 2005 draft constitution a referendum must be held in Kirkuk before the end of this year and recently the national government has agreed a policy of repatriation of Arabs, with compensation. In turn, displaced Kurds will return to repossess Arab homes and businesses, something which is already happening under the local Kurdish council. This is bringing ethnic tensions to a boiling point. Arabs have already demonstrated on the streets refusing to be deported or "ethnically cleansed" and saying they have nowhere to go and intend to stay and fight for Kirkuk.
What makes this doubly contentious is the huge oil and gas reserves that Kirkuk sits on. These would make the Kurdish autonomous region a viable independent state, which could mean the break up of Iraq. It also sends shudders down the spine of Iraq's neighbours, because they fear it could become a powerful magnet for their own substantial Kurdish populations to break away and seek union with Kurdish Iraq. These include Iran, Syria and most of all Turkey, who has seriously threatened military intervention, should Kirkuk formerly fall into Kurdish hands.
The other communities also vehemently dispute the Kurds' claims and objectives. The Turkomans consider Kirkuk to be historically Turkoman. Indigenous and recent Arab settlers view Kirkuk as an integral part of Iraq, to which they have every right to belong to and live in. Everyone views the Kurds claims suspiciously as driven by greed for the oil revenues.
The Arabs of the region fall into two segments or two with a sub-segment. There are indigenous Arab tribes, mostly in rural areas and the mostly urban "settler" Arabs who came mostly as part of the forced Arabisation of Saddam Hussein. Most are Shiites who came trying to escape poverty. Many claim to have fled victimization and forcible seizure of their own original lands further south. Sunnis also arrived and destroyed many Kurdish villages and built their own new ones. From the overall Arab viewpoint Kirkuk and other areas should never become part of Kurdistan, but should remain designated mixed areas as a mixed region under central government control or with a special federal status similar to other regions.
Such are the reports of the mood in Kirkuk that matters could easily take on civil war proportions. The ensuing battle, (while involving the Turkoman minority,) would principally be a revival of the centuries old Arab/Kurd conflict. For the Kurds Kirkuk is non-negotiable and for the Arabs it represents the last straw which they are not prepared to give up.
But all of the these groups combined do not outmatch the numerical superiority of the Kurds, which since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been reinforced by a de-facto re-population of the area by some 650,000 displaced Kurds. In the provincial elections in Kirkuk the Kurds won 60¨% of the vote and have an absolute majority of seats. Furthermore, they have gradually infiltrated and taken control of the army, police and intelligence services in the city and surrounding areas.
Furthermore, if Kirkuk "falls" then the whole the mixed population areas of the north are under threat, involving hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Kurds. Already the Kurds lay claim to Arabized mixed towns like Sinjar, Tuz Khurmatu, Khanaqin, Mandali, Kifri and Mosul, which also have important oil reserves. Much like Bosnia, with its overlapping mix of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics, within this region there resides a mixed population of Kurds, Sunni and Shia Arabs, Turkomans and a small Christian mixture of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs. After centuries of Ottoman oppression, meddling by British Imperialism and decades of misrule by Saddam Hussein a lethal cocktail of latent ethnic tensions is now coming to the surface that can spread civil war across the whole of the north.
It is not accidental that Sunni extremists, especially Al Qaeda, have begun a campaign of violent sectarian attacks in the area aimed at destabilising the region. The mixed city of Mosul along the Kurdish "frontier" has long been the scene for sectarian bombings, killings and violence. Iraq's largest loss of life from one single bombing – more than 150 people – followed by the Shiite police massacre of Sunni men, was in the mixed community of Tal Afar. In response Muqtada al-Sadr of the Mehdi army has been backing the rights of Shiites in Kirkuk and the region.
Mounting Kurdish casualties could provoke the intervention of the infamous Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas, who have taken over the police and military of Kurdistan proper, but who could be deployed in a paramilitary form in Kirkuk. Moreover, the sectarian spill over effect is potentially even wider, in that threats have been made to expel one Kurdish family from Baghdad for every Arab family forced out of Kirkuk. The scene is being set for a particularly ugly sectarian bloodbath as Arabs resist deportation and Kurds fight for what they see as their city and surrounding lands.
Such a new centre of bloody sectarian conflict could spell the end of Iraq. It would be beyond the abilities of the already stretched U.S. forces to control and should Turkey intervene militarily, then this would almost certainly end the project of a unitary Iraqi state and speed up disintegration, civil war and the break up of Iraq in to three statelets.
Until now the U.S. has remained dumbly silent on the issue, being totally overwhelmed with events elsewhere. It is starting now to try to extend "Operation Impose Order" into these and other areas, but, despite troop surges, its capacity for securing such an expansive area is impossible. Until now, they have simply gone along with supporting the Iraqi national government on the issue and its agreement to hold a referendum and now to allow Arab repatriation and Kurdish repossessions. Should there be a full-scale Arab/Kurd war over the area the U.S. has no chance of stemming the ensuing bloodbath. The mixed area could become like Bosnia with its three main ethnic groups battling for power and Kirkuk could be turned into the ethnic cleansing hell of Sarajevo. This would quickly propel the struggle from one of Kirkuk into Kurdish independence and that would mean the break up of Iraq, with enormous regional implications.
The declaration of an independent Kurdistan would most likely attract foreign intervention. Syria has interests in supporting Arabs in the area in order to undermine separatist influences on its own Kurdish minority across the border. Iran too has a large Kurdish minority and has no interest in seeing a Kurdish victory for similar reasons. But the main international actor would be Turkey with its own huge and restless Kurdish minority along the border with Iraq. Turkey is making louder and louder soundings about intervening militarily, if the United States is unable to control the situation. Such an intervention would rip Iraq apart and redefine the whole region. As one senior Turkish aptly put it in an interview with the International Crisis Group "Iraq should remain one. If it dissolves, all boundaries in the region will be redrawn, because they are all official. They are like walls: You take out one brick and the whole structure collapses."
Whether or not by the Turks, the seizure of Kirkuk and a move in the direction of independence could encourage the Shiites in the south to follow suit and would leave no room or reason to strive for an Iraqi state based on an alliance of feuding Sunnis and Shiites. The Kurds, who once promised to show how a stable federation of Iraq might function, could now well serve as its gravediggers.