الرئيسية » English Articles » The Struggle for Kirkuk Turns Ugly

The Struggle for Kirkuk Turns Ugly

DAMASCUS — Over the weekend, the London daily Al-Hayat published a two-part interview with Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Talabani, a seasoned Kurdish nationalist and Iraqi statesman, spoke of the current conditions in war-torn Iraq, hardships during his years in the underground, and made interesting references to Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that is currently witnessing much violence and which Iraqi Kurds want to be incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 1986, as part of his Arabization process, Saddam Hussein called for the relocation of Arab families to Kirkuk, the center of Iraq’s petroleum industry, to outnumber the Kurds living there. He also uprooted thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk. Since the downfall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, the Kurds have been demanding Kirkuk, something that the Sunnis curtly refuse, and are returning to the city en masse.

Some observers point to the “struggle for Kirkuk” as the real reason why the Turks are seemingly so serious about invading Iraqi Kurdistan. If given to the Kurds, the city would add tremendous political, geographical and financial wealth to Iraqi Kurds, which in turn threatens neighboring country’s like Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in a search for friends in Iraqi domestics, has allied himself with the Kurds and backed Article 140 which says that a referendum should be held in Kirkuk to see whether its inhabitants favor remaining part of Iraq, or being annexed to Kurdistan.

Given that authorities have started, under Maliki’s instigation, to call on the 12,000 Arab families brought to Kirkuk by Saddam to return to their Arab districts, the referendum will almost certainly come out in favor of annexation to Kurdistan.

Kurdish aspirations are becoming serious – and dangerous – to Iraqi Arabs. The US is seemingly supportive of these aspirations, complicating matters all the more for Turkey, Iraqi Arabs and neighboring Iran, which is also very worried about the future of Kirkuk.

In his interview, Talabani recalled that at one point, when he raised the issue of Kirkuk with former prime minister Tarek Aziz, the latter told him that in this regard, “You [the Kurds] have one right: to weep as you pass through Kirkuk [since it will never become a Kurdish city].” Talabani replied: “Thank you Abu Zayd. You are a generous man.” Aziz snapped back: “Are you joking?” Talabani replied: “No. I am not. There are 15 million Shi’ites who are deprived the right to weep on Ashura [a holy Shi’ite day]; at least you give us the right to cry.”

Kirkuk came to the world’s attention during the era of Iraq’s founder, King Faysal I, when an oil gusher was discovered in 1927. The oil field was put into operation by the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1934 and has been producing oil ever since, currently making up to 1 millions barrels per day (half of all Iraqi oil exports).

By 1998, Kirkuk still had reserves of 10 billion barrels. At the time of the downfall of Saddam’s regime, the city (250 kilometers north of Baghdad) had a population of 755,700. In 1973, Kurdish leader Mullah Mustapha al-Barzani laid formal claim to Kirkuk, something that the regime of Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr considered a declaration of war.

By 1974, authorities in Baghdad had split the district in two, naming the area around it al-Ta’mim, and redrawing its borders to give it an Arab majority. According to Human Rights Watch, from 1991 until 2003, Saddam systematically expelled an estimated 120,000 Kurds from Kirkuk and other towns and villages, to increase their Arab population. Since coming to Iraq in 2003, the Americans have never concealed their interest in oil.

Due to numerous attacks on Iraqi oilfields in 2003-04, including the country’s 7,000-kilometer pipeline system, the US set up Task Force Shield to guard oilfields, particularly in the Kirkuk district. In January 2004, the Los Angeles Times quoted Kurdish politician Barham Salih as saying, “We have a claim to Kirkuk rooted in history, geography and demographics.” If this claim is not acknowledged, he added, it would be a “recipe for civil war”.

Watching all of the above – and taking sides – is Maliki. The Shi’ites of Iraq are generally in a dilemma with the Kurds. The Kurds are overwhelmingly pro-American, with an alliance with the United States that dates to the 1970s under secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The Shi’ites are not particularly pro-American. One thing that brings part of the Shi’ites closer to the Kurds is the issue of autonomy. Certain Shi’ite groups, headed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) have repeatedly called for creating an autonomous Shi’ite district in southern Iraq, similar to the Kurdish one in the north.

This leaves the Iraqi Sunnis, who favor unity and Arab nationalism, stranded in the middle – where there is no oil. Maliki, who faces tremendous pressure for his repeated failure to bring stability to Iraq and disarm the militias, has one of two choices. Either he has to reconcile with the Sunnis, which is difficult given his sectarian upbringing, or with the Kurds.

Making friends with both, or continuing to alienate both, is impossible. Relying on support within his Shi’ite community is no longer enough, especially since many parties in the all-Shi’ite United Iraqi Alliance have started to lose faith in his leadership. Reconciliation with the Sunnis – in as much as this is being called for by the Americans – is difficult for Maliki.

In his heart of hearts, he does not want it. He wants to punish the Sunnis collectively because Saddam was one of them and because they refused to recognize and support a new, Shi’ite-led post-Saddam Iraq.

His alliance with Shi’ite military groups, like the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which has engaged in sectarian war with the Sunnis since 2004, makes a rapprochement with the Sunnis even more difficult. The friendship between Iraqi Sunnis and neighboring or regional Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Syria is even more alarming to Maliki, who fears that they are all conspiring to bring down his government and replace him with the secular former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

Last week, Maliki addressed Iraqi officers, calling on them to strike “with an iron fist” at whoever tried to work with outside forces against the political process (forgetting perhaps that he is a product of “outside” meddling in Iraqi affairs). Maliki’s statement came after Sunni Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi openly called for neighboring Arab states to help Iraqi Sunnis maintain the Sunni and Arab character of Iraq, and wrestling it from the hands of Shi’ite politicians, militias – and Iran.

Although they had differences in the past over the distribution of power between the president and his prime minister, Maliki and Talabani have reconciled to prevent the Allawi scenario from materializing. For one thing, Allawi would never allow militias to operate – neither the Kurdish Peshmerga nor the Shi’ite Madhi Army nor the Badr Brigade of the SIIC. Nor would Allawi support the idea of further autonomy for the Shi’ites. Talabani’s interview in Al-Hayat showed strong messages of support for Maliki and the Shi’ites, who in turn are reciprocating with support on the issue of Kirkuk.

Trying to defend the Iraqi Shi’ites from accusations of being agents of the Iranians, Talabani said, “I think that the Shi’ites of Iraq will never follow the Shi’ites of Iran. They are in disagreement with Iran over the issue of vilayat-e-faqih [rule of the clergy]. This is a big issue, reminding us of the international community movement and the differences between China and Russia. Najaf [located in Iraq] is the Shi’ite Vatican and not Qum or Mashad [located in Iran]. Most of the Shi’ite shrines are located in Iraq [not Iran].”

He added that as Shi’ite leaders living in Iran under Saddam did not make them agents of the Iranians: “We all resided in Iran, but that doesn’t make us Iranian.” Talabani was making a poor argument, claiming that it was Iran that followed Iraqi Shi’ites and not the other way around. Historically this may be correct, but in today’s world, Talabani knows that Iran is an international Shi’ite superpower that has control over Shi’ites worldwide, and not only in Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq, for example, is an Iranian who does not even have an Iraqi passport. In another gesture, Muqtada came out recently in favor of reconciliation with Iraqi Sunnis – something that is very difficult but which if it happens could give a great boost to Maliki’s standing in Iraqi domestic politics.

A stronger Maliki means stronger support for the Kurds and the Shi’ites. Muqtada called for an end to sectarian violence and announced that after a recent attack on a Sunni shrine, he contacted Sunni leaders and offered to have his army protect holy Sunni places of worship, suggesting joint prayers between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Sunnis turned him down, however, not for security reasons, as they claimed, but because simply they trust neither Muqtada nor his boss, the prime minister.

Muqtada then spoke of a possible coup to oust Maliki, saying that this would be a coup against so-called “Shi’itification”, but added that Maliki’s government was not governing in a Shi’ite manner, but was closer to being secular. He warned the Arab states that are supportive of ending Maliki’s tenure in office, saying: “The Arabs need Iraq more than Iraq needs them. What is happening here can explode in their own countries.”

He also denied links to Iranian intelligence. Muqtada has his own reasons for fearing Allawi since, when serving as prime minister in 2004, the man launched a ruthless war against the Mahdi Army and has promised to crush it if he returns to power. As all of this was happening, violence ripped through Iraq over the weekend, claiming that lives of over 50 people on Friday, with two car bombs in Basra and another in Kirkuk. Sunni clerics at Friday prayers accused Maliki of compliance with Shi’ite militias.

One month ago it seemed that Maliki’s days were numbered and sources in Baghdad claimed that the United States had given him a deadline of June 30 to get his act together, given their great disappointment at how his Baghdad security plan had failed.

He had to end the violence, disarm the militias and reconcile with the Sunnis, or leave office. The political activity of Allawi, and his visit to numerous Arab states, highlighted speculation that he was preparing to replace Maliki and had promised the Americans to do all of what Maliki had failed to achieve since coming to power in May 2006. Things then started to change in Baghdad.There is increasing fear that an Iraq without Maliki at this stage would spell more danger for the region as a whole, and more sectarian violence in Baghdad. In as much as the Americans want to “punish” Maliki for failing to curb sectarian violence, they also need Maliki to prevent the repetition of the same kind of violence if there is ever a cabinet change in Baghdad.

The argument now seems: having him, with all his shortcomings, is better than dealing with the unknown if he leaves office. Maliki’s reconciliation with the Kurds, his stance on Kirkuk, the support of Talabani (who has President George W Bush’s ear), and fear from the unknown under Allawi have seemingly sent the June 30 deadline into history. David Satterfield, the assistant secretary of state for Iraq, was quoted in Al-Hayat on June 10 as saying that Washington had complete faith in Maliki.That brings all talk about a near post-Maliki Iraq to a halt, and automatically, heightens fears on what the future of Kirkuk might be, given Maliki’s stance on the Kurdish affair, his support for the referendum and his rapprochement with Talabani. Satterfield’s words turn a new chapter in “the struggle for Kirkuk” – a chapter that if carried out as planned spells trouble and violence for Iraq and the entire region.


Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.