Iraqi troops with religious banners flying atop their vehicles advancing on Kirkuk, Oct. 2017. Photo AFP
Since the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk in October 2017 there have been reports of Arabization in the region. Given the history of the brutal Baathist efforts to remove the Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and settle Arabs in their place any current case of Arabization is a cause for serious concern.
A delegation of Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk visited Baghdad to voice their complaints against a decree, issued by the incumbent Baghdad-appointed Arab governor of Kirkuk, that permitted Arab families to settle on 250,000 acres of land owned by them in the region. The decree has subsequently been frozen and is currently pending review.
The aforementioned October events displaced well over 100,000 Kurds in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. Abuses carried out by the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries against Kurds in Tuz Khurmatu late last year also raised fears of ethnic cleansing in that mixed area.
“Arabization did not work out all that well for Saddam with all his might and acumen,” Bilal Wahab, the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute think-tank, told Rudaw English. “Rulers in today's Baghdad would be unwise to think they can better him.”
Arabization of Kirkuk has historically always been a flashpoint that inevitably led to conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds. In the aftermath of the First Iraqi-Kurdish War, which lasted from 1961 until 1970, Baghdad reached an agreement with the Kurds that included the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity by 1974.
The Iraqi regime used those four years of peace to impose its Arabization campaign in Kirkuk to shift the demographics of that region in its favour to consolidate its control over the region's vast oil reserves. The ensuing Second Iraqi-Kurdish War (1974-75) ended in a defeat for the Kurds. Iraq then began implementing another aggressive Arabization process, along with other repressive measures against Kurds that destroyed hundreds of villages, in the late 1970s which eventually culminated in the infamous Anfal massacres carried out by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s that killed over 180,000 Kurds.
Following the removal of Hussein from power in 2003 Arabization was banned and lands stolen from Kurds and Turkmen were returned while the Arabs who were settled there by the Baathists were financially compensated. Kurds fear that since the October events Iraq is regressing back to these older practices of Arabization to tighten its grip on Kirkuk by creating new demographic facts on the ground.
“There have been many reports in the Kurdish press of an Arabization policy going on in Kirkuk,” Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English.
“That includes claims that Kurdish officials are being removed from office and replaced by Arabs, and others,” he added.
Wing says it's hard to verify such reports since they all come from local sources and haven't yet been corroborated.
“There definitely does not appear to be any kind of strategy like under Saddam that included the forced relocation of Kurdish families to central and southern Iraq, the destruction of villages and so forth,” he added.
Wahab argues that it's “equally unwise” for Kurds to forcibly reverse any Arabization through some kind of “Kurdishization, which the KRG is accused of.”
“But such tendencies are fueled by balance-of-power politics between
Baghdad and Erbil, which has been the dominant dynamic rather than rule of law or negotiated conflict resolution,” he elaborated, pointing out that Baghdad has neglected Article 140 for over a decade while the Kurds “took the status quo, when they were in control of Kirkuk, instead of acting on Article 140.”
“In other words, both sides dismissed Article 140 and negotiations in favor of 'we are here'.”
These latest reports of Arabization, according to Wahab, are simply “a continuation of such a dynamic that has already proved volatile.”
“Given the precarious political and security situation in Kirkuk, such moves by new powers in Kirkuk will further stir ethnic conflict that helps no one but hurts Kirkuk most,” he warned. “To stave off reemergence of ISIS, Iraqi and Kurdish security forces need to cooperate as they once did through joint operations and patrols.”
Wing says the more general future of Kirkuk “remains up in the air.”
“Provincial elections are supposed to be coming up but with the delay in forming a national government the vote will likely be postponed,” he explained. “Kirkuk has not held any balloting since 2005 due to its disputed status. Iraq's ruling parties have been unable to resolve long standing issues like this and others because most are focused upon their short-term gain, and are unwilling to compromise with each other.”