In June 2009 Lydia Khalil issued a report, “Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?” for the Brookings Institution. In it, she went over some of the major issues confronting the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), one of which was Kirkuk. In the years immediately following the 2003 U.S. invasion, the Kurds were in the ascendancy in Iraq, and set up a legal framework to annex Kirkuk. Both the 2004 Transitional Administration Law and the 2005 Constitution included procedures to add the area to the KRG. The problem is that neither of these was followed through with, and now the central government in Baghdad is stronger and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is asserting his power in the country. The Kurds have not adapted well to this new situation, and instead of adjusting their position accordingly, have clung to their old one and gone on the attack against Maliki. This may have painted the Kurds into a corner, as time is not on their side, and they may end up losing their dream of adding Kirkuk if they do not modify their approach.
The Kurdish leadership calls Kirkuk their Jerusalem, and after the U.S. invasion they set up a process to annex it by legal means. In the 2005 Constitution, the Kurds were able to add Article 140. It called for normalization, a census, and a referendum on the fate of Kirkuk by December 31, 2007. That deadline was extended to June 30, 2008, but that too came and passed and no new date for a referendum has been established. For all intense and purposes 140 is dead because no one else in parliament supports it, but the Kurds. All sides eventually agreed to abandon the article and defer the issue to the United Nations, but the Kurds still talk about implementing 140. On July 15, 2009 for example, KRG President Massoud Barzani said that Kirkuk was a Kurdish city and part of Kurdistan, and that Article 140 would never be disregarded.
At the same time, since 2003 the KRG has been working to create facts on the ground to support their claim to Kirkuk. They set up their own strategy to reverse Saddam’s Arabization policy, where he removed Kurds and Turkmen from Tamim province, home to Kirkuk, and replaced them with Arabs. Immediately after the U.S. invasion the Kurdish peshmerga militia began forcibly removing Arabs from the area. Later a formal process was created where the KRG would pay Arabs to leave the Kirkuk area. Around 8,000, mostly Shiites originally from southern Iraq, have taken up the offer. At the same time, the KRG moved in thousands of Kurds into the area offering money and aid, while intimidated others threatening to take away their jobs and support if they didn’t. The KRG has also changed the borders of Tamim to include more Kurdish towns from neighboring Kurdistan, and changed many signs and schools in the Kirkuk to be in Kurdish instead of Arabic. This altered the demographics and culture of Tamim to ensure that in any referendum Kirkuk would be annexed.
This policy has been ill received by the other groups in Tamim, and caused deep resentment against Kurdish aspirations on Kirkuk. During the 2003 invasion the Kurds swept south into Tamim and took over the top administrative and security duties there. After the 2005 elections, the Kurdish parties were victorious and refused to give the deputy governorship or council presidency to either the Arabs or Turkmen in the province. As a result, by November 2006, the Arabs began boycotting the provincial council. This deadlock was only broken in December 2007 when the Kurds gave 1/3 of the seats on the provincial council to the Arabs, and added an Arab deputy governor in a U.S. brokered deal. This concession did not heal the divisions however, and the Arabs and Turkmen eventually demanded that the provincial council seats be divided into rough thirds with 32% for the Kurds, 32% for the Arabs, 32% for the Turkmen, and the remaining seats for the Christians. The Provincial Powers Act passed in early 2008, and the Provincial Election law also called for power sharing in Tamim, but were never followed through with. Today, the Arabs and Turkmen of Tamim are set against Kurdish annexation. Many Turkmen are in favor of making Tamim an autonomous region, while Arabs want it to be a regular province under the control of Baghdad. Rather than allying with local groups, the Kurds have alienated many of them, and turned others into their political enemies.
With Article 140 deadlocked in Baghdad, and increasing opposition from non-Kurds at the provincial level, the KRG has turned to obstinacy. The Kurds are afraid that if they make any concessions they will lose Kirkuk, and therefore refuse to budge on any of their major demands. The Kurdish Alliance in parliament has also held up major legislation to protest against Article 140 not being implemented. In the KRG, the Kurdish leadership has pushed the issue so much that they are afraid of losing public support if they make any compromises. This stance has only added to the growing Arab-Kurdish divide within the country, because the more the Kurds refuse to make concessions the more opposition they garner. The Kurdish leadership has thus boxed themselves in. They may just continue with their current policy even if it fails, just to save face, and thus keep the status of Kirkuk in limbo.
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Chulov, Martin, “Kurds lay claim to oil riches in Iraq as old hatreds flare,” Observer, 6/14/09
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Daragahi, Borzou, “Security may trump ethnicity in Kirkuk,” Los Angeles Times, 9/28/07
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International Crisis Group, “Oil For Soil: Toward A Grand Bargain On Iraq And The Kurds,” 10/28/08
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