SCOTT TAYLOR (*)
Last Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice made an unannounced, whirlwind visit to the northern Iraq city of Kirkuk. Ostensibly, the purpose of Rice’s visit was to shake hands with some American civilian reconstruction workers, but everyone who understands the importance of Kirkuk in Iraq’s future knows that this was not a simple photo op.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the western media have covered the violent insurgency relentlessly in hotspots such as Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit and Basra. Rarely mentioned is the oil-rich, strategically vital northern city of Kirkuk. Violence has certainly raged in the streets of Kirkuk, but rarely has this involved attacks against U.S. or coalition forces.
Since the majority of the killing in Kirkuk is inter-factional, the western media have paid it little attention. As a result, most people remain blissfully unaware of the strategic importance of this region.
Representing about 40 per cent of Iraq’s annual oil production (the remainder being pumped from around the southern city of Basra), Kirkuk has always been the economic crown jewel of northern Iraq. Unlike southern and central Iraq, which are respectively Shia- and Sunni-Arab dominated, northern Iraq is a mix of ethnicities and religions. Although often mislabelled by the U.S. media as simply a "Kurdish’ territory, Iraq’s three northernmost provinces include a mix of Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Yazidi people. The Kurds themselves are divided into two distinct tribal factions that are controlled by the rural warlords Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talibani.
From 1991 until the U.S. invasion in 2003, Kirkuk and its oil revenue had remained under the control of Saddam Hussein and just outside of the boundary denoting the autonomous Kurdish-controlled region. When U.S. special forces units moved south from these provinces into Saddam’s territory in 2003, peshmerga militias allied with both Kurdish warlords fought alongside them. However, defeating the Iraqi military forces was a secondary objective, the Kurds’ primary goal being to seize control of Kirkuk.
In the first few days following the collapse of Saddam’s army, the peshmerga looted the government offices in Kirkuk in a systematic fashion aimed at eliminating all public records such as birth certificates and land deeds.
The deliberate destruction of official records, combined with the arrival of thousands of Kurdish "settlers" in the wake of the peshmerga, alarmed the Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities that constituted the majority of Kirkuk’s prewar population. The proportion of Arabs to Kurds in this city has fluctuated in recent decades as a result of the failed Kurdish uprising in 1991 and Saddam’s subsequent "Arabification" policy.
However, for centuries, Kirkuk has been known as a Turkmen city. Their ancient presence as merchants in a regional trading centre long predates the importance of oil as an international vital commodity.
However, the Kurdish leaders have their hearts set on turning Kirkuk into the economic engine that will guarantee them a truly independent state. They have been methodically altering the demographics of Kirkuk for the past five years. It is estimated that more 300,000 Kurdish settlers have been added to Kirkuk’s prewar population of about one million. A proposed referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk as a Kurdish city has been repeatedly delayed because it would ignite a powder keg.
Turkmen groups have aligned themselves with Arab tribes in an attempt to prevent their complete dominance by the Kurdish militias, but without their own armed forces, they can offer little real martial opposition.
The Kurdish regional government is already securely established in the city of Erbil, and there is a steady stream of international diplomats already flying on direct flights from Europe to establish missions in what is already being described as the capital of Kurdistan. The only missing piece of the puzzle would be the oil revenues necessary to make Kurdish independence feasible.
Rice’s visit to Kirkuk may have been a photo op as she said, but she also used the occasion to bless an UN-brokered deal to extend the current referendum deadline from Dec. 31 until June 30.
While temporarily averting the ignition of a three-way civil war, this six-month reprieve will simply delay the inevitable and give the Kurdish warlords more time to exert their influence over Kirkuk.
Turkey has categorically stated from the outset that it will not accept an independent Kurdish state along its border as it would undoubtedly encourage the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey’s own eastern provinces. Recent cross-border military strikes by Turkish troops against Kurdish separatist guerrillas based in northern Iraq have clearly demonstrated the Turks’ resolve on this issue.
Unless a new course can be negotiated in the next six-month window, civil war and a wider regional conflict remain the most predictable outcome.
( firstname.lastname@example.org) The Halifax Herald Limited
(*) Best-selling author and award-winning journalist Scott Taylor is the author of "Among the Others" Encounters with the forgotten Turkmen of Iraq, published by Esprit de Corps Books, Canada