Kurdish Peshmerga forces on frontlines against ISIS in southern Kirkuk. Rudaw photo
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region— Recent remarks by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi about the so-called disputed territories in oil-rich areas north of the country marked a shift in Baghdad’s long-held policy on the future of these regions.
“We made progress forward with more unity. The Peshmerga are fighting together with us. Nobody in their right mind would have imagined that. And today, we are trying, instead of the disputed areas – a negative term – we will turn it into the agreed areas so that we rebuild and rule these places together, God willing,” Abadi said in poetic Arabic while attending the Fifth Annual Sulaimani Forum at the American University of Sulaimani last Wednesday.
But before arriving in Sulaimani, the pragmatic premier visited Erbil where he met with the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has been locked in a bitter feud with the other two main parties in Sulaimani, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and in particular, the declining populist Change Movement (Gorran) over a range of internal issues including the referendum for independence and the Kurdish draft constitution.
“Abadi is very well aware of the fact that the Peshmerga forces will not abandon areas they have liberated (from ISIS) prior to October 17,” said Shaxawan Abdulla who is a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament referring the Mosul Operation that started last October.
In what appears to be an unwritten agreement between Baghdad, Erbil and the US, the Iraqi government agreed to accept Peshmerga forces to remain in vast areas in Nineveh Plains and Kirkuk province in return for Kurdish support and active participation in the Mosul Offensive, an operation which started with knowledgeable Kurdish Peshmerga units clearing the path for the Iraqi army to enter the ISIS-held city.
Erbil agreed not to enter Mosul, a city which still has a half a million Kurdish population, but got to keep the areas it recaptured in Kirkuk and Nineveh — which the Kurds call their land and Baghdad calls disputed.
“Abadi does not want to upset Iraqi public opinion by revealing his agreement with Barzani under US auspices which was about the liberation of Mosul,” Abdulla said.
“Abadi understands that there is no return for these areas to the pre-ISIS order. This is why he calls for a bilateral agreement. But we do not want to revive the old order. The best option is to have international monitors in these areas and hold a referendum on their future status,” he added.
Both the oil wealthy Kirkuk province and the Nineveh Plains are also home to Iraq’s largest mixture of populations with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. In most of these areas Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and other groups have shared territories and mostly common history.
After the ouster of the former regime in Iraq in 2003, these areas came under a new constitutional article which determined their status as disputed territories and whose legal fate should be decided at a referendum in accordance with the constitution.
Kurds have accused Iraqi governments in the past of deliberately changing the demographic makeup of Kirkuk province by way of forceful migrations of Kurds and settling of Arab families in the area, which Kurds have labeled as the “Arabization process.”
Kurds have consistently been confident that they would win any referendum in these areas. They say despite long the Arabization process, Kurdish votes would secure a full integration of Kirkuk and vast areas in Nineveh with the Kurdistan Region.
The deadline to hold a referendum in disputed areas was nearly a decade ago, in December 2007. But the public vote never took place and since then all attempts to carry out the referendum have been blocked by the Iraqi government.
But with the Peshmerga forces replacing the fleeing Iraqi army in most of these territories in June 2014 following ISIS' rampage, perhaps holding a referendum is not so urgent, anyway, from a Kurdish viewpoint. After all, these places are already in full Kurdish control and Baghdad already treats them as part of the Kurdistan Region by imposing tariffs on goods that cross the borders south of Kirkuk into the rest of Iraq.