In 2008 the International Crisis Group described the Iraqi province of Kirkuk as a “powder keg” in a report on ethnic and political conflicts in the oil-rich northern part of Iraq. At the time residents of the area preferred the description of “little Iraq” because of the way the area mirrored the country’s diverse ethnic and religious make-up.
Fast forward to 20 March 2017 when Najmeddin Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, sent a request to the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) asking it to raise the Kurdish alongside the Iraqi flag on government buildings and the connections between those two descriptions — powder keg and little Iraq — are all too apparent.
Karim rejected requests from the Turkmen and Arab blocs to delay the decision before an opinion from the Higher Federal Court had arrived. In response the blocs threatened to boycott the KPC. Then on 28 March the Kurdish bloc in the KPC voted unilaterally to raise the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, announcing that it would henceforth be known as Kurdish national day, and allocated funds from the provincial budget for new flags. The moves were made despite the fact they would provoke not only other Iraqi political blocs but also regional powers such as Turkey and Iran, possibly providing the spark that could ignite the Kirkuk powder keg.
Less than 24 hours later angry Turkmen were protesting in the streets of Kirkuk against the decision. They were joined by Arab residents of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, various political blocs in Baghdad condemned the raising of the Kurdish flag, warning it would precipitate a new crisis in Iraq.
Saad Al-Hadithi, the official spokesman of the Iraqi prime minister, issued a press statement saying the decision to raise the flag violated the country’s constitution while the United Nations Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said it was “concerned” by the raising of the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk.
“The mission cautions against any unilateral steps that might jeopardise harmony and peaceful coexistence among the many ethnic and religious groups that rightly call Kirkuk their home and want to live and work together in the post-Islamic State [IS] group period, building on the spirit of unity and cooperation of all components in fighting the terrorism of IS,” it said.
The US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman was quoted as saying that the decision could overshadow the fight against IS, adding that the US wanted to see a “united and prosperous Iraq”.
Karim defended the decision and denied it violated the constitution while Turkey and Iran both denounced the move which they said will lead to greater tensions in Kirkuk.
On 1 April the Iraqi parliament rejected the Kirkuk local administration’s decision and insisted only the Iraqi flag could fly on public buildings in Kirkuk. The two leading Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), both upped the ante, rejecting parliament’s censure and insisting the Kurdish flag would remain flying in Kirkuk until Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is applied.
Article 140 is one of the most controversial articles in the Iraqi constitution. It states that measures should be taken to reverse the Arabisation policy employed by the Saddam Hussein regime during the Al-Anfal campaign and that whether or not the governorates of Nineveh, Salaheddin, Diyala and Wasit become part of the KRG will be determined, in part at least, by the numbers of Kurds who return to the disputed areas. The provisions of Article 140, which include a general consensus and referendum, were supposed to have been in place by December 2007. Instead they have been on permanent hold, leading Iraqi Turkmen MPs and political parties, along with the majority of Iraqi Arab MPs and parties, to assume the article is no longer valid. To further complicate the picture Article 143 of the same constitution states that, until the provisions are in place, the borders of the Kurdish region are those that were in force on 19 March 2003.
Now the PUK and KDP parties are not only insisting Article 140 of the constitution be implemented but any failure to do so will result in a referendum in Kirkuk being held as a step towards the KRG’s annexation of the oil-rich city.
Torhan Al-Mufti, secretary of the Iraqi Higher Committee for Coordination among the Provinces, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the decision to raise the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk constituted a legal violation on the part of the KPC.
“Kirkuk is governed under Decree 71 of the Coalition Provisional Authority,” he said. “Article 8 of that decree sets the authority of the provincial councils and the general services projects and budgets they oversee.”
Al-Mufti further argues Article 122 of the Iraqi constitution “defines the authority of the provincial councils and does not include a mandate for decisions such as raising the Kurdish flag”.
“It also stipulates provincial councils must apply any decisions of the Iraqi parliament.”
According to Al-Mufti, the recent jockeying is part of a pre-election campaign to gain the sympathy of Kurdish voters ahead of next year’s general elections.
Ramla Al-Ubaidi, an Arab member of KPC, says Article 140 of the constitution is now obsolete and that holding the referendum it calls for is not practical given “40 per cent of the province is controlled by IS.”
“Liberating Hawija and other towns in the Kirkuk province is more important than raising the Kurdish flag,” she says.
“As long as Kirkuk is a disputed area it should be under the administration of Baghdad. No unilateral decisions should be applied in Kirkuk. The Turkmens and the Arabs are united in wanting to see only the Iraqi flag on public buildings in the city.”
Hassan Turan, a Turkmen MP from Kirkuk and member of the legal committee of the Iraqi parliament, told the Weekly that while the Kurds were demanding the application of Article 140 of the constitution they had “ignored Article 143 that states the frontier of the Kurdish region stops at the March 2003 border”. The so-called Blue Line contains the three northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Duhuk, the Kurdish “safe haven” that existed from 1991 to April 2003.
The committee that had worked on the normalisation of the situation in Kirkuk, says Turan, established that of the one million acres of land confiscated by the former regime, the majority of it belonged to Turkmens. The majority ethnic group in Kirkuk before the Arabisation policies was Turkmen, and later Kurdification changed the demography of the province even more.
“In 2008 the committee found 130,000 Kurdish families were in Kirkuk but 60,000 of them had no documents confirming that that is where they were from.”
According to Turan, “in April 2009 UNAMI issued a report saying the future of Kirkuk could not be determined by a referendum with a simple majority, minority result”. Instead, it “asked all the ethnic components of the province to sit together to agree on a model for the city warning that otherwise conflict in the region could lead to the kind of civil war that happened in Bosnia in the 1990s.”