The following commentary originally appeared in Musings On Iraq
At the end of October, both the Washington Institute for Near East Policy out of Washington D.C., and the International Crisis Group based in Belgium and Jordan issued reports on possible solutions to the Kirkuk issue. Kirkuk is a disputed city in the northern province of Tamim. The Kurds wish to annex it, while Arabs and Turkomen are opposed to the idea. There is also a sizeable Turkomen and Christian community in the province that is stuck in the middle between the two sides. The city was supposed to be dealt with under the constitution’s Article 140, but nothing has happened despite two passed deadlines. The Washington Institute suggests a mini-surge of U.S. troops to the city to secure the area in the short-term, while the International Crisis Group proposes a grand compromise between Kurdistan, Baghdad, Kirkuk’s Arabs, Turkomen, and Christians, and Turkey to ultimately decide the city’s fate in the long-term.
The Washington Institute’s Michael Knights begins by pointing out that Kirkuk was largely ignored by the Surge, which means violence has gone largely unabated there. The monthly average of violent incidents went from 169 in 2007 to 122 in 2008. While Baghdad saw a 91% decrease in attacks during the Surge, Kirkuk only had a 28% decline. The recent quarterly report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction saw no change in the number of attacks from April 1 to July 1, 248 total, compared to July 1 to September 30, 245 attacks. When compared per capita, Kirkuk had twice as many attacks as Baghdad.
Because no extra troops were sent to the city, the insurgents have largely stayed in place. They carry out most of their attacks south of the center of town using roadside bombs. The main reason why the militants have remained strong in the city is because of the divisions between Arabs and Kurds. The provincial council and security forces in the province are controlled by the Kurds, who the Arabs see as outsiders. Sons of Iraq have not been formed in Kirkuk either because of Kurdish objections. In turn, Baghdad has not supported the city and province’s police because they are Kurdish. That means they lack adequate equipment and training to counter the insurgents. The city therefore, has settled into a stalemate between the two sides. The U.S. drew down most of its troops in the area back in 2006, and is planning further withdrawals, while Baghdad is unwilling to send in the Iraqi Army to help the Kurds suppress the insurgency.
To solve the situation, the Washington Institute calls for a mini-surge of U.S. troops into Kirkuk supported by the paramilitary Iraqi National Police. While there, Knights argues that the U.S. forces need to create multi-ethnic security forces, and work out local deals, while the larger issue of control of the city is handled by the United Nations’ representative to Iraq Staffan de Mistura. This would appear to be a short-term strategy that could work to reduce the number of attacks. It still leaves the final resolution to the United Nations, and the belief that it can work it out.
The International Crisis Group doesn’t believe that process will work for a number of reasons. They argue that since the Kurds are intent on annexing the city, but that the resident Arabs and Turkomen will never agree to it, and the central government does not want to resolve the issue, it will be deadlocked infinitum. The Kurds in turn, have been blocking all kinds of legislation in Baghdad out of frustration. They have held up amendments to the constitution, a new oil and a revenue sharing law, vetoed the original provincial election act, and only allowed it to pass when Kirkuk’s future was postponed again, thus maintaining the status quo there. Tensions rose in August when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved Iraqi forces into the Khanaqin district of Diyala province, which the Kurds have had de facto control over since the 2003 invasion. This increased the fears that Baghdad would assert their control over Kirkuk, and that Kurdistan would lose it. That made the Kurds unwilling to make any compromise, and pass any major legislation until they were able to acquire the city.
In their view, the Crisis Group believes a grand compromise needs to be made across a number of laws, issues, and countries to resolve the problem. First the future of Kirkuk needs to be deferred for ten years. In the meantime, Tamim will become an independent province. A power sharing compromise over the provincial and city councils will be worked out where Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen will get an equal number of seats, with a few for Christians. Afterwards, elections will be held in the province. In return for giving up their immediate desire for Kirkuk, the Kurds will get a definitive border with the rest of the Iraq set by the United Nations. That will probably mean giving up disputed areas where there is not a Kurdish majority, and perhaps compromises with a few that do. The Kurds and Baghdad will also work to pass the amendments to the constitution that will officially delineate the powers between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central government. The oil and revenue sharing laws will also be passed, that will recognize the Kurdish oil legislation, and allow Kurdistan to export their oil. This will be done through Turkey. To accomplish this, the Kurds will agree to disarm the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that is based in Kurdistan and carries out attacks on Turkey. In turn, they will officially recognize the KRG, and establish political and economic ties, that will allow Kurdish oil to flow through Turkey.
This obviously is a massive endeavor that will not be accomplished quickly. Instead it will be a painstaking process that will need massive assistance from the United States and the United Nations. The Crisis Group hopes that the Kurds can be convinced of the deal because they will get economic and political autonomy in return for postponing the fate of Kirkuk. If they don’t agree, things will remain stalemated, as they have been since 2005 when the Iraqi constitution was passed with an article to resolve the process that has never been followed through with.
Two problems with the Crisis Group’s recommendations are the large number of compromises required, and the willingness of the United States to mediate. First, in order for the plan to work there has to be an almost perfect alignment of the stars with a huge number of deals to be made in a country that rarely makes hard decisions, and when they do, they are often not implemented the way they were planned like Article 140. Second, with the U.S. drawing down, it may not be interested in getting involved in Kirkuk. Instead, it could just defer to the U.N. and leave things deadlocked as they presently are. Already, in the last year of the Bush administration, the U.S. has withdrawn its full support of the Kurds on Kirkuk and become bystanders. Maintaining the status quo may be more desirable for a new Obama administration that looks to be changing its focus to Afghanistan.
International Crisis Group, “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq And The Kurds,” 10/28/08
Knights, Michael, “Kirkuk: The Land the Surge Forgot,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 10/30/08
Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Quarterly and Semiannual Report to the United States Congress,” 10/30/08