Kirkuk is a longstanding unresolved issue between the Kurds and Baghdad. It has been described as the Jerusalem of Iraq and sometimes as a powder keg that will remain a threat to the country even if all other political issues are solved.
After the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 there was hope that this issue would be resolved, especially after the Kurds and American added Article 140 to the Iraqi constitution that said the province’s transformed demographics be reversed to its old reality before giving the people the chance to decide their future in a referendum.
By 2007 Article 140 was supposed to have been fully implemented and Kirkuk was expected to be either part of Iraq or the Kurdistan Region, officially. That did not happen.
Now the governor, Najmaldin Karim, talks of breaking with Baghdad and forming an independent region for Kirkuk. He is disappointed with the central government for not paying the province any of its petrodollars for a year and a half, practicing discrimination against the local Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen population in employment opportunities and meddling too much in local administrational affairs.
All of Kirkuk’s revenue goes to Baghdad but they do not share any of it with us,
Karim says he would pursue this project relying on the inhabitants of the province and that he has spoken about it with Kurdish leaders in Erbil, with Iran, Turkey, US, EU and the UN.
Ahmad Askari, a member of the provincial council shares the governor’s frustrations, saying, “Baghdad trades on Kirkuk’s oil and we do not see the revenue,”
Askari hints at breaking away from Baghdad by saying that with its oil resources Kirkuk can live happily on its own.
“All of Kirkuk’s revenue goes to Baghdad but they do not share any of it with us,” he told Rudaw. “If they let us we can afford our life with our internal income and oil sales that can provide enough for a living and salaries.”
At this point however, an independent Kirkuk region is only an idea and nothing near a formal proposal.
“The idea of Kirkuk independence has not been officially discussed or proposed anywhere,” says Rebwar Talabani, acting head of the provincial council. “The governor of Kirkuk has spoken about the options and alternatives for the future of Kirkuk, including independence of Kirkuk.”
After the eight years people can decide on whether to stay with Baghdad or join Kurdistan,
Talabani said that they believe Baghdad is practicing a bad policy towards Kirkuk “and using the province as a trump card against KRG [Kurdish government],”
The Kurds fought Iraq militarily and constitutionally for decades over Kirkuk which they want to be part of the Kurdistan Region that has been autonomous for a quarter century.
Others believe that turning Kirkuk into an independent region would make it almost impossible in the future to become part of Kurdistan.
“A Kirkuk region will have its own parliament, government, presidency and judicial system, just like the KRG once these institutions are well established, the two regions will diverge and evolve independently. Thereafter, a reunion with KRG become irrelevant, if not impossible” Professor Dalawer Ala’Adeen, President of Erbil-based the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) told Rudaw.
Yet some argue that an independent Kirkuk would put the Kurds in a stronger position vis-à-vis Baghdad.
“From the Kurds perspective, interestingly, if there is to be a confederal Iraq, with several sovereign regions coming together, then it may be in the Kurds' interests to have Kirkuk exist as another separate, Kurdish-associated, region, which would then give the Kurds heightened power in any confederal assembly in Baghdad,” said Gareth Stansfield, Professor of Middle East Politics at the Exeter University.
The Turkmen population who a decade ago strongly opposed any such project and remained committed to Baghdad, also appear to be for an independent region which they see as a solution or at least a good transition.
For the sake of its diverse population Kirkuk should be the shared responsibility of the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdish regional government,
“We find it necessary to have an independent region for Kirkuk, but only for eight years, and then it is going to be possible to hold a referendum in this city,” Riyaz Sari Kahiya, a Turkmen lawmaker in Kirkuk, told Rudaw. “After the eight years, the people can decide their future on whether to stay with Baghdad or join Kurdistan, or stay as an independent region forever.”
Hassan Toran, a Turkmen MP in the Iraqi parliament also believes that “proposing a federal region for Kirkuk is constitutional,”
Talabani explains that what brought the Arabs and Turkmen to the side of an independent region was the arrival of the Islamic State (ISIS) and the threat it poses to Kirkuk.
For its part, the International Crisis Group (ICG) which has been researching and writing on Kirkuk for a decade and its potential for conflict due to its multiethnic structure believes that a good option would be a joint Erbil-Baghdad responsibility for Kirkuk.
“We at the International Crisis Group have long held the position that for the sake of its diverse population Kirkuk should be the shared responsibility of the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdish regional government,” Joost Hiltermann, head of the Middle East and North Africa at ICG told Rudaw. “Various models are possible, but that's the basic principle. The zero-sum game mentality nurtured by both sides can only lead to perpetual conflict,”
Whether it the idea of an independent region comes to fruition or not, observers believe deciding the future of the province is not an easy task. “Kirkuk Province is complex and hard to govern,” warns Dr. Ala’Adeen of MERI. “There are many stakeholders who need to be engaged before its future is determined. Any hasty decision without careful planning may lead to disastrous consequences.”
Stansfield who had served as a Senior Political Adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in 2009 believes the situation has been too politicized. “Regarding all sides working together, it is a nice idea, and Kirkuk has a long history of fairly decent inter communal relations (although with some appalling moments of violence too). But the situation is now so politicized that I fear notions of cross communal governance coming together in Kirkuk may be difficult to implement.”
As governor Karim hopes to sell his idea for an independent region to the local population and regional powers, as he put it in a Rudaw interview this week, the Iraqi side remains as opposed to any such plan as has ever been.
An autonomous Kirkuk is the single largest threat against the long-term strategy of Kurdish nationhood in the Middle East,
“This is unacceptable and unconstitutional,” Iraq’s former Iraqi national security advisor Moffak Al-Rubaiyee told Rudaw. “Kirkuk should enjoy its unique status as a federal unit within Iraq and according to the constitution.”
“Kirkuk is part of Iraq and does not have any special relations with KRG,” Al-Rubaiyee said.
Even Iraq’s Sunnis who briefly appeared to advocate a federal region of their own, oppose the idea. “I do not accept nor like the idea of making Kirkuk an independent region and do not like this for other Iraqi provinces including Basra,” says Anbar governor Suhaib al-Rawi.
Some Kurds too are against the idea of an independent Kirkuk region, not for the sake of Iraq’s unity, but journalist and analyst from Kirkuk argues, anything other than its outright attachment to Kurdistan will undo what the Kurds have been fighting for over the years.
“It should be quite clear for both the Kurdish public and also those who favor an autonomous region for Kirkuk that this option is the single largest threat against the long-term strategy of the Kurdish nationhood in the Middle East,” Qurbani wrote in a column on Rudaw this week. “It also poses immediate threats to the geography of Kurdistan and the Kurdish population in Kirkuk.”