Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No easy fix

Rushing a solution to Kirkuk will trigger greater violence in Iraq, writes Saif Nasrawi

Click to view caption
An Iraqi police commando searches a graveyard during a military operation in the restive city of Baquba, 60km north of Baghdad.

For two weeks political leaders of Iraq's ethnic, religious and sectarian groups have struggled to reach an agreement on a new local election law that is widely seen as vital for consolidating the fragile political process. But despite intense joint British, UN and US pressure, leaders of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkomens and Shias have failed to resolve key differences over how to govern the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

On Sunday lawmakers failed to convene a special session of parliament that had adjourned four days earlier for a summer recess after failing to reach a quorum, putting the 1 October date of provincial polls in doubt and leaving unresolved a political standoff that has raised ethnic tensions and sparked fear of a larger scale conflict between the Arab majority backed by Turkomens and the Kurdish minority with possible foreign intervention.

Parliament's Sunni speaker had called a special session Sunday to try to hammer out an agreement on a bill authorising elections in all 18 Iraqi provinces, passed last month but rejected by Kurds. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, vetoed the bill and sent it back to parliament. The lawmakers could not meet after intensive closed-door talks among party and legislative leaders failed to produce agreement on a formula that would satisfy Arab, Kurdish and Turkomen demands on Kirkuk.

Kurds consider Kirkuk, a city traditionally inhabited by Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, as the aspired- to capital of their self-ruled region of Kurdistan while Arabs, Turkomens and Christians want the city to remain under central government control. As negotiations went on, the US administration, which considers local elections vital for its plans to declare victory in Iraq, intervened to pressure Iraqi leaders to reach a compromise over Kirkuk -- a province that holds nearly one fifth of Iraq's oil reserves.

US President George W Bush telephoned Sunni Parliament Speaker Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani and Shia Vice- President Adel Abdul-Mahdi Sunday to urge a resolution. "President Bush has been working with the Iraqis to encourage them to work out their differences and get the provincial elections law passed," said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has reportedly been putting pressure on the parties to forge a quick deal.

The UN special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, also met late Sunday with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other top leaders to try to hammer out an agreement that could be submitted to parliament. According to participants in the talks, de Mistura recommended postponing provincial elections in Kirkuk province while allowing the vote to proceed in Iraq's other 17 provinces. A committee would make recommendations on how to govern Kirkuk by the end of the year.

A senior parliamentary official said lawmakers were leaning towards approving the UN proposal, but Sunni Arabs and Turkomens were seeking written legal guarantees. "Arabs and Turkomens are insisting on clearly written legal articles that assure their equal representation in all legislative and administrative bodies in Kirkuk," the official told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity. He added that Kurdish lawmakers, on the other hand, tried to assure Arab and Turkomen political groups that the decision-making process in Kirkuk would be "consensual", but strongly reject any reference in the provincial elections law to "stated quotas", arguing that Kirkuk must be solely governed according to the outcome of democratic elections.

The recent dispute started as Arabs and Turkomens called for a quota system for council seats to guarantee representation of all communities in Kirkuk -- a demand Kurdish leaders reject. When Arabs and Turkomens succeeded in passing the elections law on 22 July, the Kurds considered it "unconstitutional". The Kurds specifically oppose an article in the law that called for a 32 per cent equal representation in Kirkuk's governing bodies to be granted for Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, while the remaining four per cent of the city's local councils would go to the Christian minority.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkomens make up Kirkuk's three main ethnic groups. The city is also home to Chaldean Catholic Christians and other minorities. Thousands of Arab families moved to Kirkuk in the 1970s and 1980s under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's "Arabisation" policy, which involved the eviction of thousands of Kurds. The current size of each ethnic group in Kirkuk is disputed, making population statistics unreliable. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, Arabs and Turkomens claim that nearly half a million Kurds were transferred to the city in a coordinated plan to "Kurdify" the city in order to annex it to a partitioned Kurdistan later.

The Kurds deny such accusations. The head of Kirkuk's provincial council, Rizgar Ali, a Kurd, says only 240,000 people, including non-Kurds, have returned since 2003. He says that hundreds of Kurdish villages in the province remain destroyed and abandoned.

The Kirkuk problem is also highly sensitive to Iraq's neighbours especially Turkey which repeatedly threatened that it will not allow the establishment of an independent Kurdish state at its southern border -- a condition that Ankara views as potentially destabilising and contrary to its efforts to contain Kurdish minority aspirations within Turkey. Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned his Iraqi counterpart to express concern over Kirkuk. Erdogan reaffirmed Turkey's stance that Kirkuk must remain a city for all its Kurdish, Arab and Turkomen inhabitants.

Fearing grave civil strife in Kirkuk, especially after the Kurds dispatched late Sunday two brigades of their security forces, the Peshmerga, to the periphery of the city in a show of force, de Mistura presented Iraqi factional groups Tuesday with a new proposal to mend differences over Kirkuk. "The UN proposal suggests delaying the elections in Kirkuk to the end of this year in order to prepare a specific elections law for the city," a Kurdish lawmaker told the Weekly on condition of anonymity. He added that the proposal, which was approved by the Kurds, also included keeping the city's current council in office until new elections and forming a special parliamentary commission to monitor demographic changes in the province.

However, Arabs and Turkomens remain extremely reluctant to agree on the new proposal, saying that it does not meet their minimum demands. Omar Abdul-Sattar, a leading member in the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, told Al-Jazeera satellite channel Tuesday that the new proposal favours Kurdish demands. He said that the Arab and Turkomen blocs in parliament rejected a reference in the UN proposal stating that a referendum over the future of Kirkuk must be respected.

Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, a referendum was due to be held last year to determine the federal status of Kirkuk -- whether it is going to be part of the Kurds-controlled region in northern Iraq or remain an independent province. In December 2007, Kurdish leaders agreed to a six-month postponement of the vote at the recommendation of the United Nations. It has yet to be held.

Even if Iraqi factional groups managed to reach a compromise over the law governing Kirkuk elections, propelled by intense US pressure, the city will remain a time bomb on the road to building a stable and united Iraq as long as all parties -- and the Kurds in particular -- are unwilling to give concessions to a power- sharing mechanism that could be viewed as acceptable to Kirkuk's Arabs, Turkomens and Christians.

Concerns of greater violence in Iraq if the Kirkuk problem is not resolved properly were echoed by Hashim Al-Tai of the Iraqi Accord Front Tuesday. Al-Tai told the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that, "all [Iraqi] political groups should understand well that the Iraqi people are the quickest on the planet to trigger their guns to solve their [political] problems."

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