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The Challenge of Kirkuk

April 20, 2009


Kirkuk is an important historical city in northern Iraq. There is archaeological evidence (the Kirkuk Citadel) that the city sits on the oldest site of continuous occupation in Iraq — stretching back some 5,000 years. Kirkuk is believed to be the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Arrapha, which achieved great importance during the tenth and eleventh centuries BC. Kirkuk’s strategic location near the Khasa River and ancient trade routes made it a battleground for three empires, Assyria, Babylon, and Media. Now there is a new battle brewing in Kirkuk. This time it’s over oil.


For generations, Kirkuk was ethnically Kurd and the Kurds still see Kirkuk as part of their national identity. Because Kirkuk sits atop major oil fields, however, successive Iraqi governments implemented a policy of deliberate “Arabization” in Kirkuk to ensure Arab control of those fields. As a result, the Kurds are no longer the majority of the city’s population. The last election in Kirkuk was particularly hard fought as Kurds and Arabs vied for political control. Because of these ethnic tensions, Kirkuk and its surrounding area remain more unstable than many other parts of Iraq. The future of Kirkuk and the potential for violence there is one of the major concerns of the international community.


A much anticipated United Nations report on Kirkuk is “expected to propose joint administration of Kirkuk and make a case for the annexation of some districts to the Kurdistan Regional Government” [“Kurds, Arabs Maneuver Ahead of U.N. Report on N. Iraq,” by Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post, 17 April 2009]. With both culture and oil revenue at stake, tensions remain high. For many Kurds, the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein against their people remain fresh memories. Londoño reports:

“Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish regional government — which operates much like a sovereign nation and has its own armed force — has worked aggressively to restore its influence in several areas that were formerly under Kurdish control. It has spent millions on social services and deployed its militia, the pesh merga, to parts of Nineveh, Diyala and Kirkuk, the three provinces that border the autonomous regional government.”

Such activities naturally make Arabs living in the area very uneasy. They also upset Iraq’s central government which is not quietly going to relinquish control over the oil fields to the Kurds.

“The tension over Kirkuk and other disputed areas, which some Iraqi and U.S. officials believe could escalate into armed conflict, prompted the U.S. military in January to increase its troop level in Kirkuk from a battalion, roughly 900 troops, to a combat brigade of about 3,200 soldiers. ‘The threat of civil war remains real, and this threat should not be minimized,’ said W. Andrew Terrill, a national security professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. ‘Kirkuk is often compared to Jerusalem, where different groups have exceptionally strong emotional attachments and the claims of rival groups are rarely seen as valid.’ The debate over control is linked to the still-unresolved question of how Iraq will distribute its oil wealth.”

It was hoped that the UN could serve as an honest broker in this situation so that it could be peacefully resolved. The study was commissioned in anticipation that diplomacy would play a major role in structuring a settlement that could be accepted by both Kurds and Arabs even though neither side would get all they wanted.

“Iraqi analysts and politicians in northern Iraq who have discussed the issue with U.N. officials in recent weeks said in interviews that they expect the organization will outline a scenario by which Kirkuk could be administered jointly by the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government. Elsewhere, based on an analysis of the region’s history, demographics and the outcome of the recent provincial election, the United Nations is expected to suggest that certain districts ought to be administered by the Kurdish regional government.”

Unfortunately, each side appears to be digging in and increasingly shrill rhetoric is making their positions seem more intractable. As a result, violence is on the rise. Because so many of the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds occurred in the disputed area, the Kurds see it as hallowed ground — much like the relatives of those who lost loved ones during the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 perceive the sites of those attacks hallowed ground. Recent elections, however wrested political control from the Kurdish minority. “Tension between armed forces loyal to the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government nearly led to a shootout last fall in Khanaqin, a town in Diyala province,” Londoño reports. “Conflict was narrowly averted by U.S. soldiers.” Although U.S. intervention helped prevent one situation from getting out of hand, the U.S. government remains in a no win situation in the area. The U.S. maintains good relations with the KRG but it has also fostered alliances with local Arab groups willing to fight against al Qaeda. Taking sides about Kirkuk’s future could tip the scales and would undoubtedly result in violence. For that reason, the U.S. would like to see the UN take control and resolve the situation.


One term that has floated around diplomatic circles for years is “ripeness.” Diplomats believe that their efforts achieve the greatest success when a situation is ripe — meaning both sides see that a diplomatic solution is better than prolonged conflict. With national elections expected to be held later this year, some observers believe that timing is not right for trying to resolve the situation, i.e., the situation is not ripe.

“Raid Jahid Fahmi, the leader of a committee appointed to ease tensions over Kirkuk, said a lasting solution seems unlikely in a politically charged year. National elections are expected in the winter. ‘It’s better to have a good solution in three years than a shaky one in one year,’ Fahmi said. ‘A durable solution might take some time. It is now proven that setting deadlines for complex political issues is not a good thing.’ American officials fear the consequences of leaving the dispute unresolved as the U.S. military withdraws, and they have urged both sides to take the U.N. reports seriously.”

Ironically, the U.S. has spent much of the past twenty years undermining UN authority. According to Londoño, many local officials see the UN as a toothless organization.

“‘We need facilitators with teeth,’ a senior Iraqi official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer his candid assessment. ‘The U.N. has no teeth. Keeping this herd of cats together without American leadership won’t happen.'”

The bottom line remains that the way ahead for Kirkuk is strewn with pitfalls. Although the UN should maintain the lead in negotiations, the U.S. and other influential nations must send strong negotiators to support the process. Influential states can help “ripen” the situation by helping local leaders to understand that some sort of compromise is essential to maintain peace and foster prosperity. Local leaders also need to know that they will lose international support if they pursue a violent solution to the challenge.

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