June 26, 2009

The Kurds make a play for Kirkuk

Earlier this week, the Kurdistan Regional Government of the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, passed a new constitution. That's fine, but there is language in the document that is likely to bring a long-simmering issue to a boil. That issue is the status of the city and governorate of Kirkuk. The Kurds have maintained for years that Kirkuk is their capital.

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As shown on the map, the Kurdish autonomous region (red), established in accordance with the Iraqi constitution of 2005, includes the governorates of Dahuk, Arbil and al-Sulaymaniyah. In addition to its claims on Kirkuk (green), the Kurds also have eyes on the adjoining governorates of Diyala and Ninawa', both with sizable Kurdish populations. Any attempt to incorporate Ninawa' and its capital city of al-Mawsil (Mosul) will also cause an uproar.

After the removal of Saddam Husayn, the Kurds moved back into Kirkuk. Many Kurds had been expelled in the Ba'th Party "Arabization" program of the 1980's in which non-Arab ethnic groups were moved to other parts of the country. A number of Kurds were forcibly moved to the deserts of southern Iraq, and Arab families were moved in to their homes in an attempt to transform Kirkuk from a multi-ethnic city into an Arab city.

After the fall of the Ba'th and Saddam Husayn , the Kurds wanted their homes (and city) back. As part of that effort, former Kurdish residences have been forcibly reclaimed, raising complaints of ethnic cleansing.

It sounds simple, but it is not.

Kirkuk is Iraq's fifth largest city, home to about 750,000 residents. It is an amalgam of the various ethnic groups that comprise Iraq - Kurds (the majority), Turkomans (a close second), Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. The oilfields around Kirkuk hold about 20 percent of Iraq's proved oil reserves.

The Turkomans claim that they number over two million in Iraq (700,000 in Kirkuk governorate alone), making them about seven percent of the population and the third largest ethnic group in Iraq after the Arabs and Kurds. Turkomans are descendants of the Turkic-speaking Oguz tribes from Central Asia. They inhabit a swath of Iraq from the Syria-Turkish border area southeast to the Iranian border east of Baghdad, a buffer zone between the Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north. Some of the residences reclaimed by returning Kurds have displaced Turkomans as well as Arabs.

Turkey has threatened to come to the defense of their "countrymen" in Kirkuk, hinting at a military incursion into northern Iraq. Incursions by the Turks into northern Iraq are nothing new. When I served in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996, there was usually a Turkish armored brigade garrisoned south of Zakhu, ostensibly to prevent fighters of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from using northern Iraq as a safe haven.

The new Kurdish regional constitution will be placed before the voters next month - its passage is an absolute certainty. That's when the Kirkuk issue will come to a boil.