A referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk—the northern province contested by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, among others—was enshrined in Iraq’s 2005 constitution, and was initially scheduled for December 2007. Delayed six months after rival groups were unable to agree on terms, it is now no closer to realization as the deadline looms. UN special envoy to Iraq Staffan de Mistura told AFP: “In December, the question of Kirkuk was a ticking time bomb. The United Nations has stopped the clock.”
Rival factions tell very different stories. “By rights, Kirkuk belongs to us,” a foreign affairs official from the Kurdish regional government, Falah Mustafa Bakir, told the French agency. “If Kirkuk is important to others, it is because of the oil. But for the Kurds, it is first and foremost a question of justice. Kirkuk is a symbol of the Kurdish oppression of the past.”
But Turkmen community official Kanan Shakir Uzeyragal said that “none of the preconditions necessary for the establishment for the organization of this consultation have been completed, nor the judgements over disputed land, or the census. Of the 40,000 contested cases of (land) ownership, only 10 percent have been resolved. And as for the census, it has not even been started.”
Hassan Turan, a Turkmen member of the Kirkuk provincial council, said: “In truth, the referendum is a dream. Nobody apart from the Kurds support this referendum, so why are they being so stubborn? The only solution is a political agreement involving a fair division of power between the communities at the heart of the local institutions.” (AFP, May 7)
Broadly speaking, there are four choices. If a promised referendum is held at the end of June and the majority of voters so wish, the province of Kirkuk could join the self-ruling block of three northern provinces already run by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Or it could become a self-ruling entity of its own, as some Turkoman groups propose. Or it could remain under the administration of the central government in Baghdad, as many Arabs prefer. Or the province could be divided, so that those districts voting to stay under Baghdad’s control would be able to do so, while those that want to be run by Kurds join the Kurdish region.
But if the various groups refuse to compromise, Kirkuk is a powder-keg that could blow up. If wholesale violence broke out between the main groups (Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans), then Iraq’s neighbours, in particular Turkey, could be drawn in.
Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution provides a clear road map for settling the issue of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the north, all of which were affected by a ruthless campaign of gerrymandering and ethnic cleansing under Mr Hussein and his Baathists, in order to Arabise the region. Kurds want to right what they see as historic wrongs-and take Kirkuk into their region. Arabs and Turkomans vehemently disagree, fearing they would be marginalised under Kurdish rule. So far, nobody has found a workable compromise-and the problem has festered. “The trouble is,” says a Western diplomat, “doing nothing in Kirkuk is almost as bad as doing something.”
So the UN is having a go. At the end of last year its special representative in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, helped persuade the Kurds to accept a six-month delay in holding a controversial referendum on whether people in Kirkuk and other areas wanted to join the Kurdistan region. Now he is trying to find a formula to settle boundary disputes in other slightly less tricky areas in the north, in the hope of creating a model for a future deal for Kirkuk itself-without having a referendum that many analysts think would certainly cause bloodshed. Mr de Mistura admits that Kirkuk is “the mother of all issues”.
The city is just one of the disputed areas addressed by Article 140 that form an arc running about 450km (280 miles) from Sinjar in Iraq’s north-west corner to the province of Diyala in the east. So far, the officially demarcated Kurdish region covers only the three northern provinces: Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. But the de facto Kurdish region, which the Kurdish government claims and currently controls, spills over into parts of the provinces of Nineveh, Saladin, Kirkuk (also called Tamim by the Arabs) and Diyala.
Mr de Mistura says he will table a clutch of suggestions by May 15th for Iraqi leaders to decide under which authority to put four or five disputed areas as the first of three phases for settling the status of areas on the edge of the officially recognised Kurdish region. He has not publicly identified these areas but Kurdish officials say they may include Makhmour, south-west of Erbil; Qaraqosh, east of Mosul; an area near Akre populated largely by members of the Yazidi sect; and Barderash, north-west of Erbil. These all have mainly Kurdish populations that could join the Kurdish region immediately without too much fuss. A second phase could include territorial adjustments near Sinjar in the north-west; Altun Kupri, south-east of Erbil on the road to Kirkuk; and Khanaquin and even Mandali, near the border with Iran. Some areas could peel away from de facto Kurdish control. For instance, the Sunni stronghold of Hawija, where al-Qaeda has been active, could be taken out of Kirkuk province and transferred to Saladin.
The stage would then be set for dealing with Kirkuk itself, though nobody has suggested a timetable. The idea, says Mr de Mistura, is to consider “objective criteria”, such as the results of the elections in December 2005, the gerrymandering of provincial boundaries under Mr Hussein, and how well minority rights and the sharing of resources in the disputed areas are respected. A referendum could perhaps eventually be held at the end of the process, with luck merely confirming territorial deals previously struck.
Last week the UN man took his proposals, which are still being honed, to EU and NATO leaders in Brussels. Before he left Iraq he stopped off to talk to Kurdish leaders in Erbil, who have angrily accused Nuri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad of dithering over Article 140. But the Kurds have themselves so far failed to persuade Arabs and Turkomans in the disputed areas that they would be better off in a Kurdish-ruled region. The Turkomans would, for instance, have a much larger proportion of seats in a Kurdish regional assembly than they now do in the federal parliament in Baghdad.
Publicly, the Kurdish leaders still insist on a referendum by the end of June, as promised by the Iraqi government. Privately, however, they have given Mr de Mistura’s ideas a cautious welcome. Apart from a referendum, he says, his is “the only plan on the table”. If it worked, it would be a huge breakthrough towards a stable, federal Iraq. But it is a long shot.