Friday, May 4, 2007

All Eyes on Kirkuk

Oil fields of Kirkuk.
(Photo courtesy Jim Gordon, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The following article was originally published on ZNet's Iraq Watch:

While the city of Kirkuk has been spared much of the violence engulfing regions further south in Iraq, the threats coming from different groups regarding the city have only been increasing and explicit demands remain uncompromising.  Major tension between Iraqi Kurds and neighboring Turkey has been the most worrisome as both sides threaten armed conflict if their demands are not met.  Both foreign influence and intervention in Iraqhas been of the greatest concerns for U.S. officials and the conflict regarding Kirkuk could be all the same.  The ongoing debate regarding the status of the oil-rich city has consisted of harsh words on all sides, and analysts expect that this year could be either a turning point in Iraq for better or for worse.

Saddam for years attempted to "Arabize" Kirkuk by driving out native Kurds and Turkmen replacing them with Arabs, many of them Shiites relocated from the south.  Today, Iraqi Kurdish leaders are demanding the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, a crucial article related to the normalization of the demographics of Kirkuk and which orders an official referendum regarding the status of the city in a future federal Iraq.

Most recently to implement this article, the Iraqi government in Baghdad has endorsed a plan to relocate thousands of Arabs to their original towns, giving monetary compensation to those who move voluntarily. However, news of the plan sparked outrage among both Iraqi Arab leaders as well as Turkish politicians.

Iraqi Kurds for several years have demanded the reversal of Saddam's injustices and have claimed that Kirkuk is the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan.  Kurdish leaders have ambitions to annex the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to their federal region and proclaim it as their capital.  However, the problem lies in the fact that the city sits on nearly 40 percent of Iraq's oil.  Turkey fears that such moves would allow Kurds to gain the economic power they need to move towards full independence.  Turkish officials fear that such a circumstance would incite separatism amongTurkey's own Kurdish population, and have called for a delay in the referendum.

Turkish officials have also claimed their concerns are for the Iraqi Turkmen communities in Kirkuk.  The Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), a coalition of several Turkmen groups, reportedly receives funding from the Turkish government in Ankara.  While ITF objectives are aligned with Turkey's policy in Iraq, the same may not hold true for the majority of Iraqi Turkmen.

The Iraqi elections in 2005 were a failure for the ITF, which did not gather more than 1 percent of the total votes as many Turkmen instead cast their votes for the Iraqi-Shiite coalition.  Divisions within the Turkmen communities are also indicated by the existence of other Turkmen groups that disagree with ITF policy.

Groups such as the Turkmen Democratic Movement highly oppose Turkey intervening in Iraq's political processes, further undermining Turkey's claims in protecting Iraqi Turkmen interests.  The leader, Kalkhi Noureddin, says the group was formed after realizing "foreign interference does not serve the interests of Turkmens in [Iraqi] Kurdistan".  Noureddin currently works with the Kurdish administration and believes that dialogue between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey is necessary in order to avoid armed conflict.

Until now, violence in Kirkuk has been blamed primarily on Sunni and Shiite insurgents.  Several Shiite armed groups such as the Mehdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, began moving into the Kirkuk province mid-last year.  U.S. officials declared such Shiite armed groups, reportedly backed by Iran, as the deadliest threats to the security in the region.  Local residents say their presence is marked by bomb explosions and murders.

However much the threat of these armed groups as well as Iran's alleged influence in the region, Iraqi officials recently claimed to have found links between the ongoing violence in Kirkuk and other foreign forces.  Recently, an Iraqi Kurdish official in Kirkuk, Nejat Hassan, asserted that Iraqi Security Forces obtained enough evidence to prove that Turkey's Intelligence Agency has been carefully conducting much of the terrorist activity in Kirkuk, targeting both Iraqi government officials as well as civilians.

Despite the United States' own difficulty with their Turkish NATO ally following the detainment of 11 of Turkey's Special Forces who were allegedly plotting to assassinate Kirkuk's governor in 2003, U.S. officials have not responded to the latest allegations by Iraqi officials.  Many Kurds feel uncomfortable with the Americans' silent stance on this issue and believe their reasons are in order to avoid embarrassment with their Turkish ally.

Still, the conflict in Iraq regarding Kirkuk and Turkey's intervention may soon become unavoidable.  Turkey has made several public threats against the Iraqi Kurdish administration saying that they oppose any Kurdish-control of Kirkuk.  While the Iraqi constitution outlines a referendum on Kirkuk's future by the end of this year, Turkeyhas threatened an invasion if the district, which analysts predict the Kurds will win by a majority vote, falls under the Kurds' control.

Kurdish officials have complained against such threats and say their previous requests for dialogue with Turkeyhad all been turned down.  Some also suspect that there are ulterior motives in regards to Kirkuk.  Many Turkish politicians have openly stated that the oil-rich districts of Kirkuk and Mosul are historically Ottoman.  For this reason, some Kurdish officials say, Turkey wishes to re-annex the area and its lucrative oil to its territory.

While the violence in Kirkuk remains minimal when compared to other cities in the south, threats continue and the possibility of a large-scale conflict increases.  Tensions in Kirkuk could explode and even spread further north to Iraqi Kurdistan, the country's only stable region.  Kurdish officials have responded to Turkish politicians with their own threats maintaining that any invasion by the Turkish military will lead to large-scale clashes with their own armed forces.

However the politics may turn out remains unclear.  Nevertheless, while U.S. officials condemn foreign interference resulting in many of the problems throughout Iraq, Kurdish officials believe the same applies toKirkuk as an internal Iraqi affair in which Turkey should not interfere.

Otherwise, one high-ranking Kurdish official said, Kurds are willing to bare the consequences of a new conflict.

Goran Sadjadi is a freelance writer based in the United States.  He visited Turkey and Iraq in August 2005 and is actively engaged in political analysis of the Kurdistan Region and the Middle East.,CST-NWS-iraq01.article

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