Hope for Kirkuk?

Stephen DeAngelis

November 11, 2009

In several past posts, I have discussed the thorny situation surrounding Kirkuk and its environs. Kirkuk was primarily a Kurdish city until Saddam Hussein drove the Kurds out and moved Arabs in. The Kurds would like to annex Kirkuk and its surrounding territory into the Kurdistan autonomous region for both historical and economic reasons. The central Iraqi government would like Kirkuk to stay in Arab hands because it sits atop a sizeable oil field. Because the future of Kirkuk remains unsettled, how the area’s citizens vote in next January’s elections could be a source of tension and conflict. As a result, how to deal with voting results in Kirkuk was a major topic of debate in the Iraqi parliament as it considered legislation dealing with the January election [“Iraqi parliament passes election law after reaching deal on Kirkuk,” by Ernesto Londoño and Qais Mizher, Washington Post, 9 November 2009]. Passing the legislation was no mean feat.

 

[Passing the election law averted] a constitutional crisis that threatened to delay the U.S. troop drawdown. The vote was held during a rare evening session preceded by intense lobbying efforts by U.S. and U.N. diplomats, who had grown increasingly frustrated by the sluggish pace of negotiations and the acrimony that characterized them.”

 

Londoño and Mizher point out that the not only was the passage of the legislation important but so was the process that achieved it.

 

“‘This was amazing for me,’ Kurdish lawmaker Ala Talabani said after leaving the session. ‘There was a lot of discussion, a lot of arguing, but we finally were forced to listen to each other. It’s a nice feeling — that we’re on the path of real democracy.’ To address the most contentious issue, Kurdish and Arab lawmakers agreed that votes cast in the disputed province of Kirkuk would be examined closely for months after the election. The yearlong review period was established to determine how dramatically the influx of Kurds to Kirkuk since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has altered the province’s demographics. The assessment could ultimately change the outcome of the election in that province, and the process could exacerbate a bitter, decades-long fight over ancestry, oil and control of the city. Sunni Arabs in the city accuse Kurds of artificially boosting their population in an effort to eventually control the oil-rich city and annex it to their autonomous region in northern Iraq. Saddam Hussein expelled Kurds from Kirkuk and neighboring cities and villages in northern Iraq during his tenure.”

 

The final legislation approved the use of an “open-list system” for the election. Such a system prevents gerrymandering but it also means that the Kurdish minority could be under-represented. “Advocates of an open-list election hope it will make Iraqi politicians more transparent and more responsive to constituents.” In the end, 141 of the 195 lawmakers present for the vote (there are 275 total parliamentarians) favored the legislation. Although nearly three-fourths of the legislators present voted for the legislation, not all of them are happy. Both Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers have concerns.

 

Some Sunnis were visibly angry after the session. They decried the resolution over Kirkuk, and said the bill does not do enough to give Iraqi refugees a stake in the political process. Iraqis overseas can vote for seven slots, but Sunni lawmakers said they deserve more robust representation.”

 

The halls of parliament are not the only places where strides are being made. Kurdish and Arab military leaders are also working together in attempt to maintain stability in Kirkuk [“Iraqi Arabs and Kurds Pursue a Common Ground,” by Gina Chon, Wall Street Journal, 10 November 2009]. Chon reports:

 

Arab and Kurdish military commanders here are making efforts at cooperation despite their bitter political differences — a surprising development that offers some hope that one of Iraq’s most difficult ethnic divides may be narrowing. Kurdish and Arab politicians in Iraq have clashed over contested land, petroleum legislation and a draft constitution that the Kurdish semiautonomous enclave is pushing. … Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said Arab-Kurd tensions are the country’s biggest security threat. But over the past six months, in parts of Iraq’s north, American commanders have brokered a quiet, if uneasy, détente between the two sides’ military forces. Officers from Iraq’s mostly Arab national army have started working with counterparts from the Kurdish regional government’s armed militia, the peshmerga. American military officers in Kirkuk have persuaded Arab and Kurdish commanders to cooperate partly by emphasizing what it means to be a professional soldier, which is not being involved in politics. They tell them that the problems between Kurdish and Arab politicians in Baghdad, and between the Kurdish regional and Iraqi governments, need to be solved by the politicians — that their job as soldiers is to take care of security.”

 

Chon’s article underscores how important baby steps are in Kurd/Arab relations by highlighting how divisive the situation was only a year ago. She writes:

 

When the Iraqi army’s 12th Division, led by a former commander under Saddam Hussein, showed up in Kirkuk last year, Kurdish peshmerga commander Brig. Gen. Sherko Fatah Namik was ready for a fight. ‘If the Iraqi army comes here, I will kill them all,’ Gen. Namik told his American counterparts then. These days, at twice-monthly meetings on a U.S. outpost, Gen. Namik’s men, Iraqi army officers and U.S. officials coordinate security and talk out problems, participants from both sides say. Gen. Namik isn’t immune to the political debate. He often tells American commanders there needs to be a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, which he says will prove the city belongs to the Kurdish region. How voting will be held in Kirkuk, which is claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, had been the key hurdle holding up the election law. Still, Gen. Namik and Maj. Gen. Abdul Ameer of the Iraqi army — the former commander under the Hussein regime — have hammered out a joint-patrol plan for Kirkuk province, in which the U.S. military may play referee, though many Arab and Turkmen tribal and local government leaders oppose the plan. … Cooperation between the two militaries is incremental but it has eased friction among security-service officials on both sides. There has been a surge in big bombing attacks across the region this year, even as overall violence in much of the rest of Iraq has eased.”

 

General Ameer was just as opposed to the peshmerga’s presence as General Namik was to the Iraqi army’s presence.

 

Gen. Ameer initially opposed the peshmerga’s presence in Kirkuk, saying they belonged in the Kurdish region, until he began meeting with Kurdish commanders, with the help of the U.S. military. … The cooperation hasn’t been easy, requiring U.S. troops to play arbitrator, grievance counselor and devil’s advocate. Recently, American officers worked to rein in the Kurdish intelligence agency, known as the Asayeesh. U.S. commanders told the Kurds the agency can’t conduct offensive operations. That’s the job of the Iraqi army or police, they argued. Both sides say the new relationship would have been impossible without a strong push from the Americans. That has raised worry about whether it will endure once U.S. forces start to draw down as planned next year.”

 

Confrontation has only been replaced by cooperation for a short period (the two sides first sat down together in March and starting working together in June of this year). That is not enough time to develop a firm foundation upon which to build lasting relationships — but it’s a start. They began by “exchanging intelligence and coordinating security efforts.” One positive indication of the impact cooperation has had is the fact that General Namik now claims General Ameer as his friend. For his part, General Ameer has said that “communication has been key to understanding each other because their efforts are now coordinated.” The situation in and around Kirkuk is far from settled; but both parliamentarians and military leaders are learning that a lot more can be accomplished through communication than confrontation. Such efforts provide a spark of hope for a region in desperate need of it.