The following was first published as part of a series on foreign policy challenges facing Barack Obama for The National on February 7, 2009
The provincial elections held a week ago in Iraq were hailed by both Iraqis and the international community as a success and a sign of the country’s growing stability. Despite rising levels of violence leading up to election day, the day itself was largely quiet. An estimated 60 per cent of the country’s voting population came out to participate in the democratic process, despite fears that violence would keep most people at home.
The elections were also a litmus test for Barack Obama’s withdrawal plan for the US military. With the elections successfully held under the eyes of Iraqi, not US, security forces, and the defeated parties largely accepting their losses in the polls, there are increasing signs that security is improving.
The elation in Washington was evident in the congratulations issued by senior military and diplomatic personnel. Gen David Petraeus, who had long warned that security gains in Iraq were “fragile and reversible”, lauded “the millions of Iraqi citizens who exercised their fundamental right to self-determination”. Gen Raymond Odierno, the commander of the coalition forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the most recent US ambassador to Iraq, issued a joint statement saying: “Iraqi security forces successfully protected millions of Iraqis and enabled them to express their opinions freely in 14 of Iraq’s governates.”
Yet, despite the flurry of well-wishes and sighs of relief from the US leadership, Gen Odierno and Mr Crocker’s statements are telling: Iraq has 18 provinces. The remaining four were not included in this round of elections, nor is there any prospects for their inclusion in the near future.
This is because they are embroiled in controversy between an increasingly assertive central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which wants to enfold these provinces into an autonomous Kurdish region. At the centre of the debate is Kirkuk province, which sits on about 13 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves.
But for the Kurds, the fight over Kirkuk is about much more than oil. “Kirkuk has become an emotional issue for the Kurds,” said Dr Henri Barkey, the chairman of the International Relations department at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.
Under the previous Baathist regime, Kurds were ethnically cleansed from the province under a policy of Arabisation.
In the 1970s, more than 100,00 non-Arab minorities, including the Kurds, were expelled from their homes in the capital city Kirkuk, after which the province is named, to make room for Arab oilfield workers, mostly Shia Iraqis.
“Districts in the province with predominantly Kurdish and Turkomen populations were folded into neighbouring provinces, and Arab districts in other provinces were joined up with Kirkuk province,” said Dr Barkey. The new cleansed area was renamed At-Ta’mim, from the Arabic word for nationalisation.
Therefore, Kirkuk is seen as symbolic of the oppression they suffered under the previous regime. And to redress their grievances, they seek a “normalisation of the demographic balance”, according to Dr Michael Knights, the head of the Iraq programme at the Washington Institute for Near East studies. “Kirkuk [the city] has a Jerusalem-like status to the Kurds. It is a symbol of their national ambitions.”
For its part, the central government has resisted efforts by the Kurds to incorporate Kirkuk into an autonomous Kurdish region. The dispute in government over who will control this province has poisoned the debate on other essential political agreements such as a unified hydrocarbons law and a constitutional revision. In the current make-up of the central government, Kurds control the presidency and thus have veto power over all legislation. They have used this as a weapon to force concessions. As Mohammed Ihsan, the KRG minister for the extra-regional affairs, said in an interview with the International Crisis Group last year: “If I can’t have it my way, I’m going to block your way.”
When an initial provincial election law in Iraq was passed in 2008, which included a provision for power-sharing in Kirkuk, the Kurdish MPs walked out of the vote in protest. The measure was then vetoed by the president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. A subsequent attempt at passing the provincial law only succeeded when it was agreed that Kirkuk, and three other disputed territories, would be excluded.
The US largely has remained quiet in the debate, leaving the mediation to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), the body empowered by the UN Security Council to broker political reconciliation. According to Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy programme director for the region, the US merely wants a “peaceful settlement to the disputes”.
Most watching this appear to agree there is the potential for an outburst of hostility between the sides should the dispute go unresolved. No one feels the argument will explode imminently into armed conflict. As Dr Knights puts it: “This is not a fight between enemies.”
Yet he believes there is still the possibility of “scuffles that turn into gunfights or assassinations”.
Any breakdown in the security situation in Kirkuk would require the US or its allies in Iraq to step in, as the federal government is prevented from sending troops into the city under a long-standing memorandum of understanding.
Should Baghdad violate this agreement, the potential for open hostilities would become that much greater, and, according to Dr Knights, would risk a serious backlash from the US.
Despite the fact that Kirkuk was not included in the latest round of provincial elections, the results could have an impact on the debate. Dr Barkey believes that an “electoral victory for the nationalists would be a blow to Kurdish desires for greater autonomy”.
Initial results show gains for nationalist movements in Iraq, particularly for the candidates supported by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s Dawa party.
Such success would mean a reconstitution of the balance of power in Baghdad. Mr Maliki’s current coalition includes the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a Shiite party with a federalist agenda for southern Iraq.
If there are significant nationalist gains in the provincial polls, then “Maliki may not need the Kurds and the ISCI”.
Yet, such a victory will not lead to a resolution on Kirkuk. It may, however, push the Kurds to the bargaining table.
The International Crisis Group has pushed for a grand bargain on the disputed territories, in which autonomy for the Kurds, particularly in the development of its oil reserves, would be exchanged for a delay on the status of Kirkuk.
However, both Drs Barkey and Knights believe this is a mistake.
Dr Barkey said: “Kurds immediately rejected the ICG report, because they don’t want to trade oil for soil. The territories are more important to them.”
Dr Knights sees the Kurdish intransigence as a political manoeuvre. “There will be no grand bargain, because the Kurds cannot afford to back down. The government holds all the cards.”
With the region reliant on money from Baghdad to fund administrative services and pay security forces, “the only card the Kurds hold in the debate is physical control of the territories”. Both men still believe that the Kurds are open for negotiations on the status of the disputed territories, but “Kirkuk is where they will dig in”, said Dr Knights.
Dr Barkey believes a dual bargain must be struck. In the city itself, there will probably be “a Brussels-like solution” where the city is given a separate standing. “But in the end, if you want the Kurds to remain in Iraq, you have to give them territory.”
Dr Knights is more circumspect about a debate that “has been going on for decades”. He sees the core of the issue being in the powers allocated to provinces such as Kirkuk. While stronger provincial powers would allow Kirkuk to function as a special region outside the KRG and the federal area, “the indications are pointing to rapid re-centralisation, whereas the provincial councils are increasingly dependent on the federal government.
Yet, the debate will rage on, because, according to Dr Barkey, the Kurds will not relinquish their claims. “One way or another, you have to solve Kirkuk.”