By MOHAMMED A. SALIH
ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: As the United States prepare for their scheduled complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year, the continuation of tensions over land and resources among Iraq’s various ethnic groups could trigger a serious conflict that might pull Iraq into a state of “political paralysis” or “break-up,” warns the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on the current state of the disputed territories in northern Iraq.
The 40-page report, published on Monday, cautions against the stand-off between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmarga forces in areas such as Kirkuk, which could “augur trouble for the period after US withdrawal.” In late February, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) dispatched thousands of peshmarga troops to Kirkuk and some other disputed areas in the north of Iraq, with the stated aim of trying to ward off any potential threats caused by a scheduled mass Arab protest across Kirkuk province and other areas. Kurdish officials had accused “terrorists” and elements loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein of attempting to use the protests as a pretext to bring down the Kurdish-controlled administrations in Kirkuk and districts in northern Diyala province.
But, the deployment of Kurdish forces created anxiety among some sections of Kirkuk’s population, according to the ICG’s report. “The Kurds are blocking Iraqi forces from entering Kurdistan without their permission, while Kurdish forces can leave their jurisdiction [at will] and come to Kirkuk,” Jamal Shan, head of the Iraqi National Turcoman Party, told the ICG. “We are concerned about the American policy, which is always right behind the Kurds. We are all aware of this American-Kurdish alliance.” The tensions in Kirkuk escalated considerably after the deployment of the peshmarga forces to the city and remarks by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, that described Kirkuk as “Kurdistan’s Jerusalem,” implying that Kurds would not let the city go.
In a statement, Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab, called on all parties to “deal with Kirkuk in a way that suits its social and cultural make-up and protects peaceful coexistence among its components,” adding that the key to a solution to the Kirkuk issue was “coexistence and true partnership.” The oil-rich, multi-ethnic province of Kirkuk has been at the heart of decades-long tensions between Kurds on the one side, and other ethnic groups, particularly Arabs and the Iraqi government, on the other. Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the ICG’s Middle East program, told Rudaw that “unless either a political deal is reached…or a workable alternative arrangement to the combined security mechanism is created without a direct US troop presence,” the chances of conflict in the ethnically-mixed areas of northern Iraq will increase.
Since August 2009, Iraq, Kurdish and US forces have formed joint patrols in the disputed areas as a confidence-building measure to pave the way for joint work between Iraqi and Kurdish troops after the pull-out of US military forces from Iraq. Hiltermann said that, despite early US “acquiescence to the Kurds' control of Kirkuk,” the US was now “increasingly impatient with Kurdish unilateral moves that could cause instability once US troops withdraw.” However, Kurdish officials say the presence of their forces in the disputed areas is meant to establish stability in these volatile regions.
Jabar Yawar, spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmarga, said all the extra troops deployed to Kirkuk and other disputed areas had now returned to their bases in the Kurdistan region as the threats in those areas had “for the time being vanished.” But, he said there were currently four battalions of peshmarga forces in the disputed areas, in line with an agreement between the Iraqi government and the KRG. “We will have regular meetings with the Iraqi and US sides in the next eight months in order to agree on a mechanism of cooperation to ensure stability in Kirkuk and other areas,” Yawar told Rudaw. As part of a “status of forces agreement” between the US and Iraqi governments in 2008, the US has to withdraw all its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.
But, there have been unverified media reports that the US might leave behind a residual force to train and advise the Iraqi military beyond that date. Some observers have suggested that the US should keep some troops in the disputed regions in order to avert any possibility of conflict in those areas. Yawar said that, as Kurds, they wanted the US forces to stay in Kirkuk after 2011, but “it is up to the Iraqi and US governments to make a deal on whether the US troops should stay in Iraq or not.”
In order to facilitate an agreement on the disputed areas, the ICG advises the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to “resume negotiations on the full range of pertinent issues, including the status of disputed territories, a hydrocarbons law, a revenue-sharing law, provincial elections in Kirkuk and a national census.” It also calls for Kirkuk to be granted a “special status as a stand-alone governorate, under neither Baghdad’s nor Erbil’s direct control, for an interim period,” and for the devising of a “mechanism for ultimately resolving its status with a power-sharing arrangement in which political representatives of the main ethnic and religious groups are represented fairly.” While concerns about the fate of Kirkuk persist, there are signs that a possible deal among the province’s various ethnic groups might be possible.
In what appeared to be a deal between the Kurds and Kirkuk’s main Turcoman party, the province’s top administrators were replaced Tuesday. Najmaddin Karim, a member of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and Hassan Turhan, a senior official of the Iraqi Turcoman Front (ITF), now occupy the posts of governor and head of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council respectively. The two posts were, until now, occupied by two Kurdish officials.
The change could represent a deal between the Kurdish and Turcoman parties to divide power, perhaps reflecting the improving ties between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey. Several past agreements between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments have collapsed because of disagreements over the fate of Kirkuk, resulting in renewed conflict. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds managed to assert control over the local administrations in Kirkuk and Kurdish-dominated parts of Diyala and Nineveh provinces.
But, their domination of those areas has met with stiff resistance from many ethnic Arabs and Turcomans, who fear the Kurds are planning a change of demography in their own favor in the disputed areas. Iraq’s constitution, drafted in 2005, has set up a roadmap for the peaceful settlement of the fate of the disputed areas. The roadmap calls for the allowing of families expelled from these areas – mostly Kurds and Turcomans – to return to their homes, while demanding Arab families brought to Kirkuk and other disputed territories by Hussein’s government to be compensated so that they can go back to their original areas in the southern and central parts of the country.
It also mandates a population census in the disputed areas, to be followed by a referendum where the areas’ residents will decide whether they want to join the Kurdistan region or be governed by the federal government in Baghdad. Although the roadmap was to be implemented by the end of 2007, the process is still in its early stages, with no clear date in sight as to when the referendum will take place.
With a comprehensive deal concerning Kirkuk yet to emerge, Hiltermann called on the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) to publicly release a report it had drafted in 2009 that contains recommendations for possible solutions to the disputed areas. “[UNAMI] should now release [the report] and facilitate the start of direct talks between Baghdad and Erbil. If it has been quiet, it has been because Iraqis were immersed in electoral politics, the elections, and then forming a government, but it now no longer has this excuse.
It's time for UNAMI to step up to the plate. It is not visibly doing so yet,” said Hiltermann.