Iraq, a federal state in the making

Kirkuk has become a persistently emblematic case for Iraq. For the Kurds Kirkuk is their fourth province, a logical extension of the Kurd Autonomous Region (KAR). The Arab Iraqis and the Turkomen however claim Kirkuk to remain under Bagdad’s wings. The city and the province of the same name are already considered the ultimate test case for Iraq’s new federal model.
The Provincial Election Law was voted by the Iraqi Parliament in Bagdad on September 24th, putting an end at the sesquipedalian and often tightly wedged negotiations about the election law and the provincial elections. After the approval of this law by the presidential council Iraq must organise provincial elections before the end of January 2009, in at least fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces.
Highly coveted and oil-bearing Kirkuk is one of the four provinces where no elections are planned early next year. This way Bagdad agreed to the proposition of Staffan De Mistura, the Swedish special UN envoy for Iraq, who had insisted upon postponing the local elections in Kirkuk with one year. The need for a separate election law in Kirkuk was the result of a veto against Article 24, another parliamentary bill, by the presidential council under Jalal Talabani, himself being a Kurd.
Quoting KAR representative Burhan Jaf, “This is a non-law intensely lobbied by Kurd opponents. Article 24 determined an ethnically equal division of power within the Kirkuk Council, giving 32 % to Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen each and the remaining 4 % to the Christians. This clashes not only with the demographic reality but also with the constitution. Neither can the Council change anything without preceding elections, nor can article 140 of the constitution be modified”.

Kirkuk for the Kurds

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution relates to the normalisation of disputed areas in the Kurd region, such as Kirkuk. The constitution covers a referendum for the inhabitants to decide whether they want to be governed from the Kurd capital of Arbil or from the central administration in Bagdad. The past few years such a people’s poll about Kirkuk has been postponed time and again. The city of Kirkuk counts about 900.000 inhabitants. Since long it it has been a mix of Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs and a small minority of Assyrian Christians.
“At the last census in 1957 the Turkomen were a majority in the city they already inhabit for ages”, says professor and political scientist Dirk Rochtus of Antwerp University. “But already then the Kurds clearly were a majority in the whole of the province”. Under the Baath-regime (1968-2003) ten thousands of Kurds were expelled from the region in order to make room for the Arabian Iraqis, mainly Shiites from poorer regions. Saddam’s arabification had only one goal: to lay hands on the important oil fields in the region.

After 2003 lots of Kurds went back to their soil, and presumably a number of Arabs have gone back to their home ground. Facts and figures about the latter diverge. According to varying sources the Arabs who had settled in Kirkuk under the Baath-regime were intimidated by the Kurds to return home, with hardly any compensation. Burhan Jaf contradicts this: “Until now no one has been evacuated. This kind of accusations and lies fit into Turkey’s propaganda campaign, which is unfairly interfering with Kirkuk. What’s more, tens of thousands of Arabs are waiting for more than a year to return voluntarily, in exchange for land and money. This is part of prime minister al-Maliki’s plan for normalisation. He just keeps incredibly silent in connection with this compensation”.

There hasn’t been a census for more than fifty years, but according to American military reports the number of Kurds would be almost 60 per cent. So Kirkuk is a case for the Kurds themselves to decide upon, estimates Kurd prime minister Barzani.

Mixed interests

“Kirkuk is not only a matter for the Kurds. That would go against the rules of democracy”, says Iraqi author and publicist TaherAlwan, a refugee in Belgium. “According to the letter of the constitution the Kurds are right and there has to be a separate referendum about Kirkuk. It’s just that the Kurds don’t play fairly. They benefited from the weak regime in Bagdad to reinforce their position and to remodel Kirkuk. They replaced not-Kurds by Kurds in important offices: mayors, police chiefs, high functions within public health, … The Kurds also control the Asaish, which is about the most efficient intelligence service in Iraq, and which does not stop short of intimidating people, even with violence”. The Turkomen consider Kirkuk also a Turkish matter. And the Turkomen being Shiites, they don’t overlook the link with Iran.
So not only the Kurds, but also actors from across the borders want to interfere in the Kirkuk case.

“Federalism is not separatism”

“Iraq is the first federal state to be made in the Middle-East”, professor Rochtus says. “The Arab countries nor Iran and Turkey are familiar with this. They have always lived with tribal traditions. The problem for Iraq is that when framing the federal law in 2006 no balanced definition of what federalism should mean was fastened down. For the Kurds it is clear: federalism means every community it’s region.
 According to Burhan Jaf: “Eighty per cent of the Iraqis have chosen the road towards federalism. It is time the opponent group should accept this. Federalism does not equal separatism, it means a state that makes way for different identities, and for (2 or 3) regions carrying their own authorities. The Shiites do understand this”. The influential Islamic party of the Shiite middle-class, backed by Iran, is indeed in favour of a regionally governed Iraq. This would imply the 9 southern provinces for the Shiites, including oil-bearing Basra (representing about half of Iraq’s exploitation) as their most important economic share. Other, larger Shiite fractions do not agree, and neither do the Sunnites. This scenario would leave them but a shabby part: an enclosed region with no oil.

Potatoes for oil

The KAR controls 6 per cent of Iraq’s northern oil reserves. Including Kirkuk this would make 15 per cent. “If Kirkuk’s soil contained only potatoes, it would have hardly become a regionally and internationally spotted case”, Jaf says. We’ll have to wait for the ultimate prospect of Iraq’s oil law, another hard test for the tenability of federal Iraq. The Kurds don’t accept the actual project because it gives too much power to the central government. After having already allied with foreign oil companies, the Kurds claim an amendment offering more autonomy to the regions in exploiting the oil reserves.

Turkey, friend or foe?

“Turkey keeps feeding the propaganda that a Kurdish Kirkuk will undermine the rights of the Turkomen”, Jaf says. “The Turkomen never had as many rights as they do now. They have TV-channels, radios, schools in their own language. Such was impossible under Saddam. We open up to other cultures. And we do recognise the Turkomen’s important economic and intellectual contribution to Kirkuk”.
For Turkey Kirkuk equals more Kurdist autonomy. This has always been a threat to the kemalists, as well as a bad example to the rebelling Kurdist Turks. Ankara also dislikes the permissive policy of the Iraqi Kurds towards the PKK-rebels on their territory. Early October, following two PKK-attempts, Turkey bombed PKK-hide-outs in northern Iraq. The Turkish parliament prolonged their army’s mandate to attack PKK-rebels in the Iraqi-Kurdist region.

In this dark sky still some points of light do appear, according to several sources. For the first time in four years a meeting between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds is scheduled in Bagdad. “Turkey has come to understand the irreversibility of an Iraqi federal state with a strong Kurdist region”, says Joost Langendijk, a European Green-Left MP. “The positive trade relations between Turkish business people and the Kurds might herald better political relations”.

One should also remember that Iraq’s second biggest pip-line for oil goes from Kirkuk via Ceyhan in Turkey to the Mediterranean”. Trade between the region and Turkey nowadays amounts to two billion dollars, part of it being oil concessions. “Turkish entrepreneurs and contractors already picked and stealed several contracts in northern Iraq. Bussiness digests better than words”, Jaf replies. “I understand the kemalists’ hate against everything which is not Kurdist, but I see that economic negotiations are a fact”.

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