Kirkuk: A Piece of Yugoslavia In Northern Iraq?

Wext: Sunday, 08.August. @ 00:00:00 CEST


By Philip Robins

07. 08. 2004
- When interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar paid his first official visit to Iraqi Kurdistan recently, it was the fate of the multiethnic oil city of Kirkuk that dominated proceedings. Of all the vexed security problems with which post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is afflicted, it is Kirkuk that is most evocative of the Yugoslav civil war of a decade ago.

The sensitivities of the situation were clear from Yawar's public pronouncements. Standing next to his host, the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, Yawar danced on the head of the proverbial pin. He stated that it was the "natural right" of Kurds who had been removed from the Kirkuk area as part of Saddam's "Arabization" strategy, to reclaim their old land. He further said that financial incentives would be provided to those Arabs (estimated at anywhere between 125,000 and 280,000 and mostly of Shiite background) who had been brought to Kirkuk since 1968 and who wanted to return to their place of origin.

In spite of these encouraging sentiments, Yawar stopped short of suggesting that the demographic reversal would be anything other than voluntary. He had already gone on record during an earlier visit to Kirkuk as saying that nobody would be forced to leave his or her home in the new Iraq. Yawar sought to mollify his hosts for this disappointment by redoubling his commitment to the vision of a federal future for Iraq, which would give the Kurds the sort of political veto over policymaking in Baghdad that they lacked under the previous regime.

For the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq, Yawar is probably as good as it gets. A senior figure in the Shammar tribe, whose lands abut Iraqi Kurdistan to the west, Yawar is at least aware of the importance of Kirkuk. Moreover, having received crucial political support from Barzani in becoming Iraq's interim president, Yawar ought to be well-disposed toward his ally.

Yet, Yawar knows as much as anyone that trying to push such a combustible issue any further would potentially pit him against majority Shiite and Arab opinion; occupying a post that is meant to represent all Iraqis, his position would quickly become untenable. In addressing this marginalization, the Kurds have tried to reach out to other communities, holding two sessions of a Turkish-Arab dialogue in the spring, and supporting the return of Turkmens, Kirkuk's third main ethnic group, also expelled from the city under the former regime. To date, however, such gestures have generated limited political capital.

If the Kurds enjoy little support on the Kirkuk question inside Iraq, the same is true as far as their closest international allies are concerned. In spite of the Iraqi Kurds' pride in their membership in the anti-Saddam coalition, and their happy insistence that British and American forces were liberators in Iraq, London and Washington have refused to be indulgent over the issue.

During its short tenure, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did little more than manage the Kirkuk problem. A property claims commission was established to look into ownership disputes, alongside a Kirkuk development fund aimed at increasing the prosperity of the area as a whole. In truth, however, such action was not much more than a holding operation. Little progress has been made on the ground. With the CPA now no more, coalition officials admit in private that the main priority is to avoid taking precipitous decisions that might trigger inter-communal bloodletting of Yugoslav proportions. Iraq, they say, has enough centers of violence as it is, and coalition troops are overstretched.

But the "creative ambiguity" that is used in coalition circles to characterize their stance over Kirkuk is not policy neutral. In reality, it is little more than shorthand for the Kurds not getting what they want.

Frustrated and angry, Kurds on the Kirkuk municipal council have for the last month boycotted its deliberations. At a time of fluid national politics, and with the Iraqi Kurds the best organized and armed of all of the communities in the country, giving up on what is regarded as such a just goal is difficult to stomach.

What will be pivotal in compelling Iraqi Kurds to come to accept the realities of Iraq as they are, is the stance of Iraq's regional neighbors and the resultant imbalance of power. While Yawar was visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, the foreign ministers of eight of Iraq's neighbors were holding their sixth summit in Cairo to discuss the Iraqi situation. This rare example of successful, regular regional cooperation has been forged out of a common concern on the part of such states at the future unity and security of Iraq.

For the prime movers of the initiative - Iran, Syria and Turkey - it is the Iraqi Kurds who present the greatest challenge to the status quo, and because of these countries' own substantial Kurdish populations, to the prospects for domestic unity and stability.

What's more, Kirkuk's considerable hydrocarbons fields threaten to give the notion of Kurdish independence an alluring viability. For such states Kirkuk is, consequently, of enormous symbolic significance. The presence of Shiites, Arabs and Turkmens gives each regional player potential leverage in the city. In the run-up to Cairo, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul sounded an ominous note in his warnings about the potential for Kirkuk to be a flashpoint for conflict.

The presence of such regional gatherings has inflamed public opinion in Iraqi Kurdistan, where visitors are as likely to have their ears burned by university professors as party hacks on the issue of Kirkuk. Argue with this, and Kurdish interlocutors will invoke the iniquities of colonial history, or quote like Serbs from the nationalist myths of old. As one popular song goes: "Kurds will either have Kirkuk and Khanaqin (another disputed area) or the Kurds will fight forever."

It is with such widely held and passionate sentiments that the two main leaders of the Iraqi Kurds, Barzani and Jalal Talabani, are now having to grapple. For one senior official in Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, the single biggest challenge that the Kurdish leadership faces is in managing expectations, especially as far as the twin issues of Kirkuk and independence are concerned. For the flamboyant Talabani, the Kurds should not assume that, because Kirkuk is not right, "everything is dark." Both men emphasize that the task of responsible leadership is to deliver the possible. An all or nothing struggle, says Talabani, will leave Kurds with nothing.

Such sentiments suggest that compromise is possible over Kirkuk. With much to play for in a new Iraq - federal arrangements, the allocation of senior posts, territorial adjustments - tradeoffs that may benefit the Kurds certainly exist. But with the blood boiling and a jumble of local, national and regional factors involved, the potential for miscalculation is high. With its inter-ethnic tensions, Kirkuk may yet come to be a piece of Yugoslavia in northern Iraq.

Philip Robins is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the Oxford University and a fellow of St. Anthony's College. His "Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War" (Hurst & University of Washington Press) was published last year. He recently returned from a visit to northern Iraq. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR

Note: Reports are published based on respect for freedom of opinion's expression, they do not necessarily reflect views of Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Source: The Daily Star

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