Monday, April 20, 2009

Kirkuk Remains In Political Limbo

Every deadline set for Kirkuk in Tamim has come and gone with no resolution. The Kurds of the province want it either annexed by Kurdistan or given special status for a period of time to work out its future, while the resident Arabs and Turkmen think it should be under the control of the central government or have some sort of autonomy. The Christians there are caught in the middle. On March 31, 2009, a special committee was suppose to come up with a power sharing agreement amongst those major groups that would allow for provincial elections. That date has passed with nothing happening. That follows the failure to carry out a census and referendum called for by the Iraqi constitution at the end of 2007. That date was extended to June 2008, but that too expired with no action. The task of determining the future of Kirkuk is now up to the United Nations, which is in the process of coming up with a series of options. It the past is a prelude to the future, then the U.N.’s plans are likely to be frustrated as well.

The Provincial Election law postponed voting in Tamim until a special committee could come up with plans for how to conduct them there. The law said that a committee had to create a power sharing agreement between the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians, before balloting could occur. The committee was to consist of two Kurds, two Turkmen, two Arabs, and one Christian. They were to finish their work by March 31, 2009. In early February 2009 a parliamentarian from the Kurdistan Islamic Union criticized the group saying that it would miss its March deadline because it had done nothing, which would jeopardizing the election in Tamim. He proved to be right. The end of March has come and gone, and there has been no word on the committee’s progress.

A major sticking point is that there are no up to date numbers on the population of Tamim. The Kurds want to use a 1957 census that says they are the largest group, while the Arabs insist on a 1987 census that favors them. The problem arises from Saddam Hussein’s Arabization policy that forced thousands of Kurds out of Kirkuk. Since the U.S. invasion thousands of Kurds have moved to the province, while many Arabs have either been forced out or been encouraged to leave with the promise of cash payments by the Kurds if they do so. According to the law, the fate of Tamim is now supposed to pass to the cabinet, but they are unlikely to make much progress either.

That leaves the issue to the United Nations. At the end of March several officials talked to the Associated Press about a draft U.N. plan that includes five possible options to deal with Kirkuk. One official said three of those would be rejected outright by one or the other of the major groups in area, leaving the last two, a special status for Tamim or making it an autonomous region as the only viable ones. If the province is given special status that would mean that it would be under the joint rule of both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The final decisions on how to carry out the day-to-day governance of Tamim would be left to the provincial council. Tamim would be under this specification for three to ten years until the government and the U.N. could find a resolution. This plan is favored by the Kurds because it would mean their continued control of Tamim, as they are the majority on the provincial council. The other plan is to make the province autonomous. It would still rely upon Baghdad for funding, but could possibly collect revenues from the North Oil Corporation as well, which exports its petroleum through a Kirkuk-Turkish pipeline. The Arabs and Turkmen support this idea.

In the meantime tensions are building in the province. In July 2008 the newly formed 12th Iraqi Army Division was moved into Tamim. The commander of the unit General Abdul Amir Zaidi served in that area under Saddam from 1996-1998. The commander of the Kurdish peshmerga militia claims that General Zaidi operated against the Kurds during that period, although he denies it. The general said that his orders from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, are to remove all of the Kurdish peshmerga militiamen from the province. The peshmerga have been there since the U.S. invasion. This plan was postponed after an Iraqi Army unit almost got into a shoot out with Kurds in January 2009. The U.S. had to intervene to defuse the situation. As a result, the Kurds have called for 10,000 U.S. troops to stay in the province until its future is determined. Leading Kurdish officials such as the President of Kurdistan Massoud Barzani, and his son Masrour Barzani, have called for the implementation of Article 140 of the constitution that requires a census and then referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

The U.S. is fully aware of the potential danger in Tamim, but now has a set deadline to leave the country that complicates its role. A U.S. Army officer said in March 2009 that if there was a flare up around Kirkuk that threatened violence, the U.S. would send in troops to stop it. Despite the plan to drawdown forces in much of the country, the Americans have actually increased their presence around Kirkuk. At the beginning of the year, the U.S. Army battalion that was stationed there was replaced with a full brigade. In that same month then Vice President-elect Joe Biden traveled to Iraq and stopped in Kirkuk where he told the sides that they had to have reconciliation to resolve the future of the area. The Americans are supposed to be out of Iraq’s cities by the end of June 2009 however, and completely withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, so the Kurds especially are apprehensive about what lays ahead after they leave.

In March 2009 Kurdish President Barzani said that the problems between the Kurds and Baghdad will remain unresolved until the future of Kirkuk is determined. The Kurds lay claim to a large swath of northern Iraq, but Kirkuk is the prize. It has both symbolic importance as well as help rallies the population behind the ruling parties in Kurdistan. While the central government was weak, the Kurds moved to legally annex the area. They sent their forces into Tamim after the U.S. invasion, they took control of the local administration, they won in the provincial elections, and then added Article 140 to the Constitution to hold a referendum on the issue. In 2007 Prime Minister Maliki began asserting his authority as the American Surge and other factors began to decrease the violence. After dealing with the Sadrists and insurgents, he began confronting the Kurds. This began in places like the Khanaqin district of Diyala and Mosul in Ninewa, and eventually came to Tamim. The attempt by the 12th Iraqi Army Division to move the peshmerga out is part of Maliki’s plan to limit the Kurds to Kurdistan, and end their expansionist plans. President Barzani’s claim is probably correct then, Kirkuk will be a defining issue between Baghdad and Kurdistan. It will probably take some kind of bargain between those two to resolve it. Until then tensions will increase, elections will be postponed, and Tamim will remain in political limbo.


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