Mar. 31, 2008
By CAROLINE TOSH and ZAINEB AHMED
The Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Staffan de Mistura knows his time is running out.
Unless the U.N. envoy is able to resolve differences between the Shiite-controlled government here and the Kurdish authorities in the north over the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, he warns that Iraq will soon face "the mother of all crises."
The odds are not in his favor. Mistura, who was called in last month to defuse what he acknowledges is a "ticking time bomb," has so far been unable to get the parties to agree on a solution to a problem rooted in policies implemented under Saddam Hussein.
Kirkuk, long a Kurd-dominated city, saw itself "Arabized" under Saddam, who, in an effort to strengthen his control over the crucial area, forced thousands of Kurds out of the city and replaced them with Arabs from the south.
Now the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government wants the Kurdish population restored and the Arabs evicted from houses in which some have lived for years.
The ethnic composition of the city is crucial to both parties in advance of a referendum called for under the new Iraqi Constitution that will determine whether the city and its surrounding area will be governed by Baghdad or the Kurdish-controlled north.
The referendum, scheduled for last year, was put off after the Baghdad government failed to take several constitutionally mandated steps in advance of the vote, such as providing restitution for people who were forced out of Kirkuk by Saddam, resettling or otherwise accommodating those moved into the area by the previous regime, establishing recognized boundaries for the region and holding an updated census.
Meanwhile, tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in Erbil have continued to grow.
There's little doubt that Baghdad, which loathes the idea of surrendering control of an area that is believed to contain as much as 12 percent of the country's oil wealth, has been dragging its feet in the process.
And it's not just Arabs who oppose a possible Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk.
The city's significant Turkoman population, which has its own historical claims on the city, also opposes any move that would strengthen the Kurds' position in the area. Iraq's neighbors are also watching developments closely, as any move that strengthens the position of the Kurdish regional government could have implications for Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria and Iran.
Ankara is fiercely protective of Kirkuk's Turkomans and fears that, should Kurds gain control of the city and its enormous oil wealth, Kurdish separatists could be emboldened to pursue their nationalist ambitions.
Nor can Kurds count on the United States, which for years supported their defiance of Saddam's regime, to back their position.
By laying claim to Kirkuk, the Kurds are "making a major mistake," said Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution.
"They should rethink their approach both out of fairness to the United States, which has given them a chance to help build a post-Hussein Iraq, and in the interests of the Kurds and their neighbors," he wrote in a recent piece in The Washington Post.
Now the U.N. envoy Mistura has been charged with bringing all parties together so that a vote can be held to "determine the will of ... citizens" with regard to the city and other disputed territories. But few expect the referendum to be held as scheduled, meaning that tensions are only likely to grow.
As renewed fighting flares in the south among various Shiite forces, the real crisis for the future of Iraq may be looming in the north.