Of Blood, Oil and Kurdistan, by Joost R. Hiltermann

June 4, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Posted in Turkmens | Leave a comment
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Of Blood, Oil and Kurdistan

By Joost R.Hiltermann

June 2, 2011

As US troops are primed to leave Iraq and the situation
in Iraq’s disputed territories remains unresolved, the likelihood of escalating
tensions along the so-called trigger line increases. While communication and
cooperation between Iraqi army and Kurdish regional guard forces has improved,
they continue to face off across this unmarked line of control, which meanders
through an elongated territory that is rich in ethnic diversity and, by twist
of nature, oil, stretching from the Syrian to the Iranian border. Their tenuous
relationship could come unglued when the US presence in their midst changes
from military to civilian at the end of this year.

Last month, in the latest reminder of how explosive the
situation remains, bombs killed scores in Kirkuk, the city and governorate at
the core of the conflict. Kirkuk’s ethnic communities each have contending
claims to the area’s status: the Kurds wish to attach it to the adjacent
Kurdistan region; the Turkomans would like for it to become a stand-alone
region under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s control; and the Arabs mostly favor
the status quo—a province directly under Baghdad’s rule. In pressing their
claims, demographics—who has the right to live and vote in Kirkuk—have become
the principal battleground. Had oil been absent from the equation, the status
question would have become a good deal less incendiary; the significance of the
area’s ethnic makeup and numbers would largely have faded; and there would have
been no need for the deployment of rival security forces.

The US military presence has succeeded in keeping the lid
on tensions that never cease to boil just beneath the surface. It is for this
reason that Kirkuki politicians of all stripes have called for an extension of
the US troop presence in Iraq, but so far the Maliki government has given no
indication it is prepared to face the likely political fallout from supporting
such a call and negotiating a new status-of-forces agreement. Lacking mutual
trust, suspecting each other’s motives, and manipulated by more powerful forces
outside Kirkuk, these politicians have been unable to come to a basic agreement
even over how to govern the area, regardless of its status. Provincial
elections have been postponed indefinitely, while the process envisioned under
Art. 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which addresses the disputed territories,
has stalled: most property disputes have yet to be settled; the census has
suffered repeated delays; and no one is even talking seriously about a status
referendum. The only positive development was the appointment last month of a
Turkoman as Kirkuk’s provincial council chairman, which removed a dispute
between the previous (Kurdish) chairman and the (also Kurdish) governor, while
providing greater ethnic diversity at the leadership level.

The situation cries out for international mediation, and
the United Nations has indeed put out feelers to determine whether it could
play a meaningful role in getting talks started and outlining a roadmap. Yet
progress is slow, reflecting the fragility of the ruling coalition in Baghdad
and the complexity of the issues involved. Very little is likely to happen
before US troops pull out, and all sides are now starting to prepare for that
eventuality.

The Kurds have been the first to move, citing security concerns.
During the Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, in late 2010, they deployed
Asaesh security personnel throughout Kirkuk city, angering Arabs and Turkomans.
In February, they sent troops to the city’s southern gateway, violating a
security arrangement with their Iraqi and US partners in the so-called combined
security mechanism, a system of joint checkpoints and patrols that has served
to keep the peace. Kurdish leaders claim they obtained a green light from Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it’s more likely that Maliki, caught flatfooted
and worried about widespread demonstrations molded on the Egyptian and Tunisian
examples, was in no position to resist the move. Following US pressure, the
Kurdish forces withdrew a month later.

The Kurds’ military assertiveness has been widely
interpreted as an attempt to probe their adversaries’ resolve. Perhaps they
feel heartened by the result, but they would be wrong to interpret Maliki’s
passiveness in February as a potential willingness to acquiesce in a Kurdish
takeover of Kirkuk once US troops are no longer there to ease the Kurds back
out. No Arab leader in Iraq could hope to survive politically if he is seen to
surrender Kirkuk to the Kurds, and inversely Kurdish leaders would lose all
their credibility if they failed to stand up to an Iraqi army bid to drive the
Kurds out of Kirkuk. This means that if the current standoff persists,
unilateral moves, by either side, will without doubt trigger armed conflict
once the US security blanket is removed.

There is no peaceful alternative to negotiations leading
to a sustainable consensus-based compromise on the status of Kirkuk. While this
process gets underway, the shadow of the big questions—status, security,
demographics, oil—can be reduced if leaders in Baghdad, Erbil, and Kirkuk were
to focus on local, pragmatic solutions. Rather than addressing the status
question head-on, they should work to improve governance and development, and
let results serve to build trust, which could then allow for progress on
status. To remove the weight of demographics, the sides should agree that any
solution to the status question should be the result of negotiations and not of
an ethnically-based referendum. In the absence of a federal hydrocarbons law,
Baghdad and Erbil should seek a deal to share both the management and the
revenue of the area’s oil wealth. And a local police force needs to be built up
as a viable, and ethnically diverse, alternative to the presence of federal
military and Kurdish regional guard troops.

By working together to improve people’s daily lives,
Kirkuk’s leaders may help the city in recovering something it lost a long time
ago but that older generations still recall with evident nostalgia, the
pre-1960s notion of ta’ayush,
or peaceful ethnic coexistence, and in making it the foundation of a lasting
peace.

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