Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk

Posted in Iraq | 19-Jul-06 | Source: International Crisis Group


As all eyes are turned toward efforts to stabilise Iraq, the conflict that has been percolating in Kirkuk remains dangerous and dangerously neglected. That struggle is equal parts street brawl over oil riches, ethnic competition over identity between Kurdish, Turkoman, Arab and Assyrian-Chaldean communities, and titanic clash between two nations, Arab and Kurd. Given the high stakes, the international community cannot afford to stand by, allowing the situation to slip into chaos by default. It needs to step in and propose a solution that addresses all sides’ core concerns without crossing their existential red lines. The most viable negotiated outcome, which a special UN envoy should mediate between leaders of Kirkuk’s communities as well as representatives of the federal government and the Kurdish federal region, would rest on the following provisions:

  • postponing the constitutionally-mandated referendum on Kirkuk’s status which, in today’s environment, would only exacerbate tensions;
  • designating Kirkuk governorate as a stand-alone federal region falling neither under the Kurdish federal region nor directly under the federal government for an interim period;
  • equitable power-sharing arrangements between Kirkuk’s four principal communities; and
  • continued reversal of past abuses, including managed return of those who were forcibly displaced by previous regimes; facilities and compensation for those brought by previous regimes (including their offspring) who agree to leave voluntarily; resolution of property disputes via the established mechanism; and a process by which former Kirkuk districts can either be restored to Kirkuk governorate or remain where they are.

To the Kurds, Kirkuk was always a Kurdish-majority region – shared, they readily admit, with other communities – over which they fought and suffered, from Arabisation to forced depopulation to genocide. In their view, the Baathist regime’s removal created an opportunity to restore Kirkuk to its rightful owners. They have done much in the past three years to encourage the displaced to return, persuade Arab newcomers to depart and seize control of political and military levers of power. Their ultimate objective is to incorporate Kirkuk governorate into the Kurdish federal region and make Kirkuk town its capital.

To the other communities, the Kurdish claim is counterfeit, inspired primarily by a greedy appetite for oil revenue, and they view the progressive Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk as an outrage. To the Turkomans, in particular, the growing Kurdish presence has caused deep resentment, as they consider Kirkuk town historically Turkoman (while conceding that the Kurds are a significant urban minority, as well as an outright majority in the surrounding countryside).

The Kurds’ rising power has allowed them to create institutional faits accomplis that now threaten to bring the Kirkuk conflict to a vigorous boil. Their prominent role in drafting the constitution in 2005 enabled them to insert a paragraph that ordains a government-led de-Arabisation program in Kirkuk, to be followed by a census and local referendum by the end of 2007. However, while the constitution puts them formally in the right, neither any of Kirkuk’s other communities, significant parts of the central government nor any neighbouring state supports these procedures. Turkey, in particular, has indicated it will not tolerate Kirkuk’s formal absorption into the Kurdish region, and it has various means of coercive diplomacy at its disposal, including last-resort military intervention, to block the Kurds’ ambitions.

Within a year, therefore, Kurds will face a basic choice: to press ahead with the constitutional mechanisms over everyone’s resistance and risk violent conflict, or take a step back and seek a negotiated solution.

Passions may be too high to permit the latter course but, on the basis of two years of conversations with representatives of all Kirkuk’s communities, as well as of the governments of Iraq, Turkey, the U.S. and the Kurdish federal region, Crisis Group believes a compromise arrangement that meets all sides’ vital interests is attainable.

Failure by the international community to act early and decisively could well lead to a rapid deterioration as the December 2007 deadline approaches. The result would be violent communal conflict, spreading civil war and, possibly, outside military intervention. It is doubtful that an Iraq so profoundly unsettled by sectarian rifts and insurgent violence would survive another major body blow in an area where the largest of the country’s diverse communities are represented.


To the Government of Iraq:

1. Invite the UN Security Council to appoint a special envoy charged with:

(a) facilitating a negotiated solution to the status of Kirkuk as well as other Kurdish-claimed areas;

(b) raising donor funds for Kirkuk’s rehabilitation and ensuring their use on the basis of need, not ethnicity;

(c) monitoring the parties’ compliance with any agreements reached; and

(d) reporting regularly to the Security Council.

2. Intensify the process of reversing past abuses in Kirkuk, including:

(a) the managed return of people forcibly displaced by previous regimes;

(b) facilities and compensation for people brought in by past regimes (including their offspring) who agree to leave voluntarily;

(c) resolution of property disputes via the established mechanism; and

(d) a process by which former Kirkuk districts can either be restored to Kirkuk governorate or remain where they are.

To the Government of Iraq, the Council of Representatives, Representatives of Kirkuk’s Communities and the Kurdistan Regional Government:

3. Indicate the intention to resolve the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories through peaceful negotiations and commit to moderating rhetoric on this matter.

4. Negotiate with the help of the UN special envoy an interim solution for a defined period, perhaps ten years, along the following lines:

(a) broaden the negotiations over Kirkuk to include other Iraqi stakeholders, specifically representatives of civil society, including unions, non-profits and women’s organisations;

(b) during the scheduled constitutional review process, the council of representatives would set aside the idea of a referendum for Kirkuk and instead draft a charter dealing specifically with that governorate;

(c) the charter would grant Kirkuk governorate the status of federal region for a defined period of time; and

(d) Kirkuk’s four communities would agree on equitable power-sharing arrangements.

To the Kurdistan Regional Government:

5. Prepare the Kurdish public for necessary compromises on Kirkuk and Kurdish national aspirations, including acceptance of Kirkuk governorate as a stand-alone federal region for an interim period.

6. Relinquish directorates in the Kirkuk governorate over which the Kurdish parties took control in April 2003 and cooperate with the UN special envoy in redistributing senior posts in the governorate on an equitable basis.

To the Government of Turkey:

7. Commit to the peaceful resolution of the Kirkuk question and lower rhetoric on this issue.

8. Facilitate trade, especially in fuel products, between Turkey and northern Iraq, for example by opening a second border crossing in addition to the one at Khabur, and promote investment with the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

9. Commit not to send military forces into Iraq or to undertake measures of coercive diplomacy, such as shutting down the Khabur border crossing or the Baji-Ceyhan pipeline.

To the Government of the United States:

10. Lend full diplomatic and financial support to peaceful resolution of the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, make this one of its diplomatic priorities in Iraq, and persuade all Iraqi political actors of the need to pursue a negotiated solution to the Kirkuk question:

(a) encourage Iraqi political leaders to promote more inclusive and transparent decision-making around the future of Kirkuk by including a broader group of actors in the negotiations.

To the United Nations Security Council:

11. Act on an Iraqi request to appoint a special envoy for Kirkuk, supported by a Security Council resolution outlining the envoy’s powers in accordance with proposals in this report.

Amman/Brussels, 18 July 2006

Middle East Report N°56