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    Middle East
     Apr 27, 2007
The temperature rises in Kirkuk
By Jason Motlagh

KIRKUK, Iraq - The latest wave of deadly attacks to hit the oil-rich, ethnically combustible city of Kirkuk appears to be a prelude of worse to come, with a referendum looming to decide its status by the end of the year. Concern that the north is poised to become a new front in the Iraq conflict is saddled by the possibility that neighboring Turkey will also join the fight.

The fate of Kirkuk, which sits atop one of the world's biggest oilfields, is set to be resolved in a local referendum as laid out in

the Iraqi constitution. After a forced "Arabization" campaign under Saddam Hussein that brought tens of thousands of Shi'ite Arabs to displace the Kurdish population, an estimated 350,000 Kurds have moved back since April 2003 and are now said to hold a majority that would carry the vote.

The Kurdish Regional Government already has de facto control and wants to absorb the city into the northern autonomous region, a prospect that has given large Arab and Turkoman populations common cause against the Kurds. Last month, a plan endorsed by the Iraqi government to relocate these groups "voluntarily" sparked a row in Baghdad that led some officials to resign. Two days later, a suicide truck bomber slammed into a police station in a Kurdish neighborhood of Kirkuk, killing 15 and wounding more than 200 people. A March 16 attack left three more Iraqis dead.

Hostilities may extend outside of Iraq and into Turkey, where officials worry that a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk would bring the Kurds one vital step closer to an independent state that could reignite separatist fervor among the 14 million Kurds living on its side of the border.

In response to a threat by Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that he would "interfere" with Turkey's Kurds if Ankara continued "interfering" in northern Iraq, the Turkish military threatened a unilateral offensive into northern Iraq to rout Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas known to stage cross-border attacks. Turkey is now waging a major assault against the PKK in its southeastern mountains.

The Kurds have to date been the United States' most reliable partner in Iraq's fractious political landscape. But as tensions mount, the US has opted to remain in the background. Part of this stance can be explained by its preoccupation with the last-ditch "surge" of troops to secure al-Anbar province and Baghdad. Another less-held view is that the US Department of Defense is providing clandestine support to Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) guerrillas based along the Iranian border, a proxy force that has battled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on and off.

Either way, observers warn that continued neglect by Washington could spell ruin for the only successful facet of the Iraq nation-building project.

"Preoccupied with their attempt to save Iraq by implementing a new security plan in Baghdad, the Bush administration has left the looming Kirkuk crisis to the side," said a new Crisis Group report. "If the referendum is held later his year over the objections of the other communities, the civil war is very likely to spread to Kirkuk and the Kurdish region, until now Iraq's only area of quiet and progress."

Much as the Kurds feel entitled to Kirkuk, there is a growing sentiment that even if it is secured in a referendum, the backlash may be too costly. Joost Hiltermann, the Crisis Group's deputy Middle East director, calls the referendum process "a train wreck", arguing that Washington and the United Nations should intervene and press for a postponement of the referendum with one key proviso: an alternative face-saving measure must be devised that avoids a political crisis stemming from a possible Kurdish withdrawal from the cabinet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Such a compromise would have to include an oil-revenue-sharing law that allows for the equitable distribution of billions in petrodollars up for grabs. Kirkuk and its surrounding area hold about 8% of Iraq's estimated 78 billion barrels of oil reserves, and the Kurds have already inked production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies to develop fields in the region.

The current hydrocarbon law in the constitution is vague on just how future revenues should be allocated and whether existing contracts made by Kurdish authorities should be upheld; a clarification could allay Sunni Arab fears of being cut out of profits by Kurds in the north and Shi'ites in the south. A settlement may yet arise "from a desire among Kurds to have companies operate in their territory with the confidence that a national law would impart", according to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

There are still other incentives to consider. Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite Mehdi Army also has a significant presence in Kirkuk and has reportedly orchestrated attacks on Kurdish government institutions. Hundreds of Mehdi fighters have moved to the city over the past year, US officials say, with 7,000-10,000 Shi'ite loyalists vowing to join the fight against any Kurdish attempt to take control.

Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.

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Iraqi Kurds play with Turkish fire (Apr 14, '07)

A waiting game in the mountains (Apr 14, '07)

A Turkish puzzle over Iraq (Apr 6, '07)


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