dimanche 14 octobre 2007


Published in AFRIQUE ASIE (October 2007)
For original in French please see:




By Gilles Munier

Pressed by their leaders, hundreds of thousands of Kurds from Iraq, but also from Syria, Iran and Turkey are settling in Kerkuk. Far more than the number of inhabitants who were expelled under Saddam Hussein. The aim: to modify the ethnic composition of the city before the referendum that is supposed to be held before the end of 2007.

Since 10th April 2003 – the day after the fall of Baghdad – a real Kurdish invasion took place in Kerkuk: Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, respectively leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) organized militarily a massive immigration of Kurds to the territories they wanted to conquer. The newly arrived Kurds registered on the election lists and are waiting for the referendum which is to take place before next December 31st. The aim of the operation: to give a democratic varnish to the annexation of Kerkuk and its surrounding region by the Kurds and hand over to the Americans the petrol fields of Baba Gurgur, situated near Kerkuk.

Turkmens and Kurds

The International Crisis Group (ISG) has received the testimony of a - Turkmen - member of the Governorate which summarizes the situation: “In 2003, Kerkuk had 800.000 inhabitants. Today it has 1.150.000 inhabitants. Where do these 300.000 additional inhabitants come from? They correspond to at least 50.000 families. One knows that 10.000 families were expelled; where do these 40.000 additional families come from?” Since then the population has reached 1,5 million inhabitants, mainly Kurds who are in favour of the annexation.

The practical application of the operation is not simple because article 140 of the new Iraqi “constitution” states that the referendum must be preceded by the “normalisation” of the situation in the region, and by a “census”. The “normalisation” is under way. It means the return of the displaced Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians and – in parallel – the departure of the Arabs who replaced them. Pressures are being put on the Kurds who refuse to return because they have remade their life somewhere else or fear that the annexation will turn into a blood bath. In order to make them change their minds, the “Kurdish Regional Government” no longer delivers administrative documents to them and deprive them of social aid.

The methods utilized against the non-Kurds are more radical. If they refuse the 15.000 dollars compensation, they risk being assassinated or disappearing in the prisons of the autonomous Region. The attack of 7th July 2007 in Amirli – 150 dead, 250 wounded – reminds us of the savagery of the Irgoun in Palestine. On the spot, the Kurdish secret services are accused and the answer was not slow in coming: on 16th July a vehicle exploded in Kerkuk in front of the UPK headquarters, making many victims.

The newly arrived Kurds (in Kerkuk) do not all live there. Many remain in Suleymaniya or in Erbil, because of the lack of housing or for security reasons. They only go to Kerkuk during the week-ends to justify their “relocation”. To become an elector in Kerkuk, it is sufficient to dig foundations of a house or to reserve an apartment in a building that has yet to be constructed … The “census”, however, is not easy to organize. It must carry out the ethnic and religious tally of the inhabitants of the Kerkuk region, and that of the “contested territories”, that is to say those which are claimed by the Kurds. The problem is that these ‘contested territories’ stretch from Mount Sinjar at the Syrian border, to the Iranian border… and to about 20 kilometres South of Baghdad. For the Arabs, Turkmens, Yezidis, Shabaks and Assyrians who have been living in these regions for a considerable period of time and who are all hostile to the partition of Iraq, it is a declaration of war.

There have always been Kurds in Kerkuk, but those who pretend that the city is Kurdish are falsifying history. The Ottoman archives, the tales of travellers, the reports from diplomats posted in Mesopotamia and from spies – namely the Intelligence Service at the beginning of the 20th century – attest without any exception that Kerkuk and its region are Turkmen. The Kurdish leaders say that their right to constitute a State goes back to the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, but they forget to mention that the promised Kurdistan… did not include Kerkuk. At that time, the British would not have liked them to claim a region with promising resources: the oil veins which had been detected stretched from Mosul to Kasr El Shirin, passing below Tuz Khurmatu, Kifri and Mandali, regions which are essentially inhabited by Turkmens, and not by Kurds. In February 1925, the Société des Nations Commission which investigated on the Mosul question – attributed to France by the Sykes-Picot Agreement – proposed unofficially to the Iraqi leaders to incorporate the wilayet to Iraq if they committed themselves to give up the Turkish Petroleum Company to the British, which they did. Thus, the Iraqi border was drawn as the English wanted.

The discovery of the huge petrol field of Baba Gurgur, on 15th October 1927, greatly upset the ethnic balance in the surroundings. To the Kurds who already lived there were added those hired by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC): mountain people reputed for being docile and hard working. The Imam Kassim neighbourhood in Kerkuk was reserved for them. IPC preferred them to the Turkmens who were suspected of Kemalism, and they utilized them to counter the growing influence of Arab nationalism and of Bolshevism in Iraq.

The Kurds from Kerkuk are mostly descendants from the refugees of the wars which were started under the monarchy and the republican regimes. The revolt of Sheikh Mahmoud, proclaimed “King of Kurdistan” in November 1922, was crushed in blood. Thousands of Kurdish mountain dwellers, fleeing the deadly gas bombardments of the RAF sought refuge there. In 1945, the first revolt of Mustapha Barzani was also crushed by the English. The inhabitants of the destroyed villages also sought refuge in Kerkuk, while their leader found asylum in the USSR after having been a general - during a short period of time - in the ephemeral Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, in Iran.

The war for Kerkuk

After the toppling of the monarchy, on 14th July 1958, President Abdel Karim Kassem proclaimed a general amnesty. Barzani, a pro-communist at that time, entered triumphantly in Baghdad. The understanding between them lasted for two years until the Kurdish chief – advised by the Soviets who wanted to hinder the western oil supply – demanded the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region with Kerkuk as its capital. Kassem immediately declared war on him. In September 1961, thousands of Kurdish refugees ended up in
Kerkuk. They were settled in Iskan, to the East of the city.

As the USSR supported the successive Iraqi governments, Barzani turned towards Iran, Israël and the United States who utilised him to destabilize the regime of the Aref brothers, and later the Baathists who came to power in July 1968. In June 1972, Barzani opposed the nationalisation of the IPC affirming that the petrol of the north was Kurdish and that he would hand over its exploitation to the Americans as soon as Kurdistan became independent. In March 1974, he refused the autonomy law negotiated with Saddam Hussein, alleging that the map of the Region did not include Kerkuk. The fights started again with their share of dead and refugees. As a consequence of the Iran – Iraq war in September 1980 new villages along the border with Iran were destroyed. The survivors found themselves in hamlets built in the Erbil plain. Since the fall of Baghdad, on 9th April 2003, they have been transferred to Kerkuk in view of the upcoming referendum.

The Gulf War of 1991, the economic sanctions, then the toppling of Saddam Hussein, have given the Kurdish separatists the opportunity to create a State. Will they seize it? Nothing is less sure, because Kerkuk is not only an apple of discord between Iraqis – Arabs and Turkmens against Kurds – but between Massoud Barzani and Talabani who detest each other. The latter exercises specific rights, arguing that the majority of the Kurds in Kerkuk speak Sorani, the dialect of Suleymaniya, his fiefdom.

The two war lords are making verbal statements without measuring the consequences. For Barzani, Kerkuk is “the heart of Kurdistan”, and for Talabani “The Jerusalem of the Kurds”, a suggestion, it is said, from the Israeli Mossad. Strengthened by American promises, they think they can prevail. If they succeed, the city will be the capital of the autonomous Region, then of an “independent” State, and may be one day that of a “Great Kurdistan” including the Kurdish regions of neighbouring countries. Bechtel, the American company which built the Kerkuk-Haïfa pipeline – which was shut down at the creation of Israël in 1948 – is already studying the means to provide oil and water to Israël from Iraqi Kurdistan…

This of course is without reckoning with the Iraqi resistance and Turkey’s more or less violent reaction where the Kemalists believe to have a right of inspection ‘droit de regard’ over the former Mosul wilayet. It would also be ignoring Moqtada Al-Sadr who supports the Marsh Shiites, who have been expelled from Kerkuk. This does not deprive them from the right to vote in the governorate, he says. Transfers of registers of Arabs or Turkmens on the voting lists of other regions – in exchange of a few hundreds of dollars – are perfectly illegal. He intends to organize a parallel referendum with them if the Kurds maintain theirs.

The Kurdish hold-up which is being prepared in Kerkuk worries the Middle-East. According to Al-Binah al-Jadidah, a Shia Baghdadi daily, King Abdallah of Arabia has proposed last April to Massoud Barzani and to Borham Saleh, Iraqi “Vice –Premier Minister” 2 billion dollars to postpone the referendum for 10 years. They refused.

Bloomberg Markets estimates the oil reserves in the autonomous Region at 25 billion barrels. With Kerkuk -10 billion barrels – and the “contested territories” – 20 billion barrels – the incomes of the “Great Iraqi Kurdistan” would exceed those of Mexico or of Nigeria. One can understand that these numbers have gone to the heads of the Kurdish war lords and that they arouse much envy abroad.

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