Thursday, the Kevorkian Center was fortunate enough to host Joost R. Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. Professor Hiltermann gave a highly informative lecture about the ‘coming deluge’ that may occur once US forces leave Iraq. The brewing conflict is no longer so much about sectarian violence in Iraq, but about violence between two ethnic groups: Kurds and Arabs.
The conflict is centered around the status of Kirkuk province. Kirkuk is a particularly ethnically heterogeneous province in Iraq. It contains a plurality of Kurds, but also has a significant amount of Arabs, Turkomen and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians. The Kurds are pressing for the province to be incorporated into the Kurdistan Regional Government, while the non-Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk strongly resist that idea.
The status of Kirkuk was deemed to be settled by a constitutional mechanism. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution mandates that a referendum be held in order to determine Kirkuk’s final status. However, the language of the constitution is ambiguous in terms of how this referendum should be worded – asking the inhabitants if they want to belong to Irbil or Baghdad is an ethnically loaded question that is bound to precipitate armed conflict by the losing side. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq has suggested a compromise be reached through a negotiated settlement. Once this settlement has been finalized, it can be approved or rejected by the inhabitants of Kirkuk in a referendum. This way, posing the question in ethnic terms is avoided.
International Crisis Group has recommended another solution to the Kirkuk conflict. Its “Oil for Soil” compromise stipulates that in exchange for the Kurds’ deferment of Kirkuk for ten years, the KRG will receive demarcation and security guarantees for their internal boundary with the rest of Iraq, as well as the right to manage and profit from their own oil resources. Currently, the KRG cannot export any of its oil since the only way out is through the pipeline leading to Turkey. Turkey refuses to allow any Kurdish oil to pass through this pipeline until the Kirkuk issue is settled. As a consequence, the KRG loses $620 million a year in lost oil revenue while the Iraqi central government loses $3 billion a year from those same sales. Irbil and Baghdad are caught up in a game of seeing who can hold their breath the longest.
The Kurdish political parties – united on the issue of Kirkuk – have demonstrated their unwillingness to compromise on this issue by blocking critical legislation. They have repeatedly blocked the passing of the hydrocarbons law, as well as electoral laws needed to hold elections. Most recently, the Kurdish MPs walked out of the Iraqi parliament last week in order to block the passing of the January 2010 electoral law because the law uses 2004 voter registries rather than more updated ones. The Kurds claim that Kurdish representation in Kirkuk has been growing since 2003 as they reverse the ‘Arabization’ of Kirkuk that occurred under Saddam Hussein. Thus, using more updated registries benefits the Kurds.
Baghdad is equally unwilling to compromise. As Arab politicians try to pose as nationalists in order to eschew the previous sectarian political dynamic (at least publicly), they will be increasingly loath to compromise on an issue so essential to Iraqi nationalism.
How will this issue be resolved? For the Kurds, time is not on their side. Their once resolute alliance with the United States is growing weaker as the US prepares for withdrawal and urgently desires a resolution to the issue. Moreover, the Iraqi state is growing stronger, not weaker. This trend must worry Irbil to some extent. A negotiated settlement is quickly becoming the only option in order to avoid an outbreak of ethnic violence.
This issue may come to a head after the January 2010 elections. No party will win a majority. As a consequence, a coalition government will have to be hammered out and the Kurds will once again be able to play the role of kingmakers. In return for Kurdish support of the government, the Kurds will undoubtedly ask for Arab compromises on Kirkuk. The ensuing ethnic violence this political deadlock may precipitate is what worries many observers of Iraq today. It underscores the lack of constitutional mechanisms available to solve these problems, as well as the lack of sustainability of the constitution in its current form. It should also serve as a reminder to those who believe that Iraq is increasingly looking like it’s on the road to stabilization that the fundamental flaws embedded in its political system still have yet to be corrected, and that more violence is just a shot away if and when political negotiations fail.