الرئيسية » English Articles » Nationalities, Oil, and Land: Kirkuk and the Disputed Territories

Nationalities, Oil, and Land: Kirkuk and the Disputed Territories

Lauder Professor of Political Science – University of Pennsylvania – December 19 2007

First draft.Paper for the Conference at Chatham House, December 19 2007

Under Iraq’s constitution of 2005 the political status of the “governorate” (province) of Kirkuk and other disputed territories is scheduled to be formally resolved by the end of December 2007. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and all Kurds within it ardently want to unify with these territories, either by referendum or agreement. It is now clear that the referendum affecting the status of Kirkuk governorate will be postponed for six months, until the summer of 2008.1

But the constitutional obligation remains, and the KRG and the people of the Kurdistan Region are able to block any proposed amendment to Iraq’s constitution. So, what will happen, and what will be the consequences for Kurdistan, for Iraq, and the affected peoples?Let me focus attention on Kirkuk, because that is what most do, and because that is where most controversy resides.

Four thoughtstopping clichés need to be critically evaluated before sensible analysis is possible of what is likely to happen in the year ahead. Let us dignify these clichés with names:(i) the oil-grab conspiracy;(ii) the axiom of the tinderbox, the powder-keg and flash-point;(iii) the terrible Turk thesis; and (iv) the crazy Kurd conjecture.

The oil grab conspiracy.

A remarkable number of people who write about Kirkuk place the words “oil rich” before it, suggesting that is all one needs to know.2 The city sits atop 6 percent of the world’s and 40 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, according to Lawrence Kumins3. So, is the controversy over Kirkuk’s status all about oil? Are we witnessing an oil-grab by Kurds intent on financing the establishment an independent sovereign state?Should we expect profound armed conflict over its territorial status because allegedly wise people argue that the deepest conflicts are over resources? The answer to these questions is “No”. In fact, potential controversies over the Kirkuk oil-field and its revenues are formally resolved, as I shall explain. Moreover, the Kurds of Iraq are not intent on winning their independence, however much they want it, however deeply they dream of it, and however much they deserve it because of their maltreatment at the hands of Baghdad [1] governments.

They know, as do the leaders for whom they voted, that striking out for an independent Kurdistan would be most unwise, especially when Kurdistan has the substance of full domestic independence within a federal Iraq co-designed by Kurds. Saddam’s manipulations of the boundaries and peoples of Kirkuk, his policies of expulsion, of Arabization, and of settler-infusion, and his betrayal of his commitments to Mustafa Barzani, were, of course, shaped by his knowledge of Kirkuk’s natural resources. Equally Saddam’s theft of the black gold of Kirkuk intensified the rage of Kurds and Turkomen at the Baathist regime. But to be rendered homeless and robbed of your patrimony is not the same thing as wanting to get back what was stolen.Neither Kurds nor Turkomen are intent on an oil grab. In fact there have been just two accomplished oil grabs in the history of Kirkuk. The first was the British decision to keep Mosul vilayat after the defeat of the Ottomans, a decision partly motivated by oil prospects.

The second was the policy of successive Arab governments in Baghdad, especially Saddam’s, to confine the revenues of the Kirkuk oil-fields to the discretion of Iraq’s central government. These oil grabs are, of course, recalled and contested by Kurds, and by others in Kirkuk. Both the history and the present politics of Kirkuk’s oil should be accurately understood. The key point about this juncture is that the Kurds are willing to play fair, unlike Saddam, or his predecessors – injustice in Iraq did not begin with the Baathists. Kurdistan’s leaders propose to share – not to grab – the oil resources of Kirkuk. They have made this proposal a matter of Iraq’s constitutional law. Under therelevant provisions of Iraq’s Constitution, which Kurdistan’s leaders helped negotiate, the revenues from Kirkuk’s oil-field will be shared across Iraq as a whole, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum onKirkuk’s status.

Therefore, any change in Kirkuk’s territorial status will notmean that the Kurdistan Region controls all of Kirkuk’s oil revenues, as is frequently and falsely suggested.The relevant article in Iraq’s constitution draws a sharp distinction between oil and gas from currently exploited fields, and fields which arenot yet exploited. It is a constitutional obligation that oil from currently exploited fields be distributed across Iraq as a whole.4 The Kirkuk oilfield has been exploited since at least 1932. It is therefore covered by the relevant constitutional provision, and no elected leader of Kurdistan has said otherwise. This is a remarkable constitutional compromise. The [4] negotiators of the constitution of Iraq deserve considerable credit forseparating the issues of oil from those of regional boundaries.Let me spell out the implications, which are rarely remarked upon.If Kirkuk governorate joins the Kurdistan Region then the revenue fromits oil-fields must accrue to the whole of Iraq, to be allocated across regions and governorates on a per capita basis – including, of course,Kirkuk itself. The same formula applies if Kirkuk does not join theKurdistan Region. Moreover, the same formula applies if the Kurdistan Region was to secede from Iraq. In that eventuality Kurdistan would have no legal entitlement to take with it all of Kirkuk’s oil revenues; or,differently put, any negotiated secession would have to respect the 2005constitutional deal on oil and gas revenues. In short, provided the constitution is fully implemented, all Iraqis should benefit from Kirkuk’scurrently exploited oil and gas fields in future, and, just as important, the KRG has a strong interest in remaining in Iraq to ensure the legalityof its title to revenues from Kirkuk’s oil field, and the legality of its futuretitle to Kirkuk governorate.Far from financing Kurdistan’s independence a Kurdish grab ofKirkuk’s oil field would weaken the status and standing of Kurdistan asthe most lawfully governed part of Iraq, jeopardize its reasonable entitlements under Iraq’s constitution, and wreck its independence plans because neighboring states which refused recognition would be able toblock the export of its oil and gas. If I was asked, I would advise Kurdswho want an independent Kurdistan to wait until Kirkuk’s exploited oilfields are exhausted before launching such a political mobilization.In fact, however, I advise Kurds and Kurdistanis intent on making Iraq work as a federation, i.e. the Government of the Kurdistan Region,and its multi-party coalition. They know that the constitution of the federation provides a fair process for ensuring that Kirkuk and other disputed territories can join the Kurdistan Region, and a fair way of allocating the natural resources of Kirkuk. That is why they signed up to the constitution.(ii)

The axiom of the tinderbox, the powderkeg and the flashpoint.

Newspapers and broadcasting media frequently call the city of Kirkuk a “tinderbox”, a “powder-keg”, or a “flash-point.” [5] They speculate that Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and local Turkomen, and the Turkish Army,will forcibly seek to prevent Kirkuk’s unification with the KurdistanRegion –though they usually make no such predictions about the other disputed territories. They seem to anticipate a four-way fight betweenKurds, Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs and Turkomen – usually the Assyrian Christians are ignored as potentially militant fighters. More typically journalists portray the politics of the city as Kurds versus the rest (Kurds for unification with the Kurdistan Region; the rest for the territorial status quo or for some special status for Kirkuk governorate). The Kurdsand Turkomen have valid historical claims to Kirkuk city and governorate, and correctly claim they were oppressed in the past Someof the Turkomen want Kirkuk to be recognized as the capital of their special region. 6 Article 5 of the 1992 (draft) Kurdistan Region’sConstitution named Kirkuk as its capital, and Kurdish leaders havereferred to Kirkuk as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”. Arabs also have astrong long-running desire to keep Kirkuk within Arab Iraq. Thegovernorate was re-named under Saddam’s decree was “Tamim”, the Arabic for “nationalization.”In fact it is unlikely that Sunni Arab insurgents, local Shia Arabsor Turkomen, or the Turkish Army will prevent the unification and consolidation of the Kurdistan Region. Instead, the stabilization of Kurdistan, and northern Iraq, will be best consolidated by the democraticresolution of the status of Kirkuk, and the constitutional resolution ofthe disputed territories, judgments that should be shared by sensible Arab Iraqi, Turkish, EU and US policy-makers, i.e. those who think about rather than react to the Kirkuk question. Underlying the metaphors of the tinderbox, the powderkeg or theflashpoint is a theory that ethnic, national and religious antagonisms in Kirkuk are so high that the slightest move to resolve the territorial statusof the governorate will trigger a throat-slitting bloodbath. This theory should be taken seriously precisely because it is important to minimize further bloodshed in Iraq. But is it true?In favor of the theory is that there have been clashes, riots, and inter-ethnic antagonisms in Kirkuk’s past, notably during the early daysof the Iraqi Republic. It is also common sense that Saddam’s policieshave left poisonous residues, and easy materials for unscrupulous demagogues. We should take care, however, not to presume the worst, even though it is sensible to prepare to prevent the worst. What then can fairly be said about group-preferences and inter-group relations within Kirkuk?

Let us take the Kurds first, the subject of this conference. They [6] profoundly care about Kirkuk and the disputed territories. They are partof their homeland. They regard them as part of Kurdistan, and Kurdish nationalists have done so for at least a century.7 They regard them asplaces with present and past Kurdish majorities – or with such majorities before Saddam’s “Arabization” programs were implemented.Some outsiders, however, contest Kurdish claims to Kirkuk governorate and city, and so do some (but not all) non-Kurds, in Kirkuk city, some Sunni Arab politicians, and some Shia Arabs, and some Turkomen. What are the facts?8 The last relatively reliable census in Iraq washeld in 1957. Though the Baathists who governed Iraq in a one-party dictatorship between 1968 and 2003, subsequently tampered with the data, I have had translated and inspected the original census-returns in my University’s library. In 1957 of the three largest communities in the governorate – Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen – the Kurds constituted the plurality, approximately 48 percent of the governorate as a whole (49percent if unknowns and foreign citizens are excluded), and probably more if Kurds are allocated an appropriately high share of the unknowns. Outside of Kirkuk city, Kurds were indisputably the majority community.By contrast, in the city – then home to less than a third of the governorate’s population – Turkomen (37.6 percent) were the largest group, just outnumbering Kurds (33.3 percent), who in turnout numbered Arabs (22.5 percent).

The most objective summary is thatin 1957 Kirkuk was a multi-ethnic city, within a larger and heavily Kurdish population in the rest of the governorate.What has happened since? We can make one reasonable social scientific assumption. Because Kurds were the poorest of the majorgroups in 1957 their higher population growth likely made them thelargest community by the 1960s. But after 1968, under the Baathists, both the city and the governorate were subject to brutal demographicengineering. Saddam gerrymandered the boundaries of the governorate,to include Arab villages from other governorates, and to exclude Kurdishones. He encouraged mostly Shia Arab settlers from the South with handsome bonuses. The Baathists presided over preferential hiring ofnon-Kurds in the oil-field and related industries. They organized the expulsion of Kurds (and Turkomen), the falsification of citizenship [7] records, and the confiscation of properties. Amid a growing population they are variously reported to have expelled between 100,000 and250,000 Kurds, and thousands of Turkomen. Saddam’s plans were farfrom completed before the first Gulf War because, until his fall, he continued to induce Arab settlers to settle and to expel and “denationalize”Kurds, Turkomen, and Christian Assyrians.

There is now better evidence of the demographic facts on the ground than debatable projections from the 1957 census, and Saddam’s manipulations. Two sets of elections and one referendum took place in Kirkuk governorate in 2005. The Kurdistan lists, which included Turkomen and Assyrians, won a decisive majority in each election,including on the second occasion, when there was a high turnout and no Sunni Arab boycott. In the October 2005 referendum, the governorate’s electorate endorsed Iraq’s constitution by a clear majority, 63 percent voting “yes”, and 37 percent voting “no” on a 79 percent turnout. The Independent Electoral Commission and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Unit validated the results. In voting “yes” local voters were endorsing the mandatory referendum to enable the governorate to join Kurdistan after “normalization”.These separate votes in 2005 confirm that Kurds or at least pro-Kurdistan voters are the majority group in the governorate – and the largest group in the city, which now has more people than thesurrounding rural areas. The return of a significant number, though notall, of Kurdish expellees in 2003, and the flight of some Arab settlers after the US-led military victory, has over-turned Saddam’s work.Given this history there is considerable plausibility to the idea that relations between the communities in the city could be violentlyexplosive. Yet we also know that even a very bad history in a bad neighborhood does not guarantee a bad future. Two questions decisively matter in deeply divided places. One is whether there can be a fairprocess to resolve major disagreements.

A fair process is not only fair,but provides cushions and assurances for those who lose out. Thesecond is whether there is effective control over security in the dividedplace. Without effective security then it is easy for deep divisions to betrip-wired into intense inter-group violence. With effective security evendeep animosities can be regulated, even if not completely suppressed.Bearing these facts in mind after 2003 the KRG has sought a peacefuland democratic way of reversing Saddam’s ethnic engineering, before theconduct of a referendum, i.e. “normalization”.

This expression meansrestoring the pre-1968 boundaries of the governorate, fully facilitatingthe right of return of expelled people and their descendants (includingmostly Kurds and Turkomen), and encouraging the settlers encouraged8by Saddam with financial packages to leave. If they stay then they, andtheir descendants, should not be allowed to vote in the referendum.”Normalization” is mandated by the constitution and agreed by the Shiadominated Iraqi federal government.9.,..”Normalization” thus understood in my view is fair. Any otherpolicy rewards Saddam’s regime, which grossly violated the human rights of the peoples expelled from Kirkuk governorate. Any other policy means sanctifying ethnic expulsion, coerced assimilation and demographic engineering – all within living memory. Normalization preceding a referendum is fair: it establishes the appropriate unit for the referendum,and the appropriate rules for establishing who has the right to vote.Under these provisions no one is deprived of Iraqi citizenship but Saddam does not dictate the electoral register of Kirkuk from his grave.Moreover these rules are not lacking in administrative feasibility, alwaysan important consideration in the conduct of a referendum.

What will therefore matter for political stability is whether “normalization” is properly and transparently managed, and whether the likely losers of the referendum – those who favor Kirkuk remaining outside of the KRG – can be given sufficient assurances that they will be able to live decently and securely within the KRG. Incorporating Kirkuk governorate and city in an autonomous Kurdistan has been a consistent objective of Kurdish parties. They argue that the governorate is part of the geography of Kurdistan. Any traveler from Hêwler (Erbil) to Kirkuk observes no visible geographic demarcation between Kirkuk and the existing Kurdistan Region.

The area is part of the plains beneath the Zagros Mountains. Kurds maintain the region, if not the city, has been part of Kurdish-speaking civilization for at least two centuries, and though the governorate has numerous significant minorities, that should not affect its status as part of Kurdistan. Kurds insist that were it not for Saddam’s manipulations, no one would dispute that they constitute the majority group in both the region and the city,and point out that Saddam’s expulsions and “Arabization” should not be rewarded or treated as irreversible. Reversing injustices should not betreated as equivalent to the original crimes. [9]

How do the non-Kurds of Kirkuk governorate feel about likely unification with the KRG? They differ; some are ardently opposed, others are fearful, others are persuadable. The non-Kurds are not Kurdish politically, and do not favor an independent Kurdistan. But they are not uniformly hostile to Kurds, there are some inter-marriages with Kurds,and some non-Kurds sensibly believe that their security will be better within the KRG, the one stable and safe part of Iraq. Most, when pressed, recognize that the Kurds have suffered injustices. The city’s professional Assyrians, mostly Christians affiliated with the Catholic Church, usually believe they will be better off under the KRG, which has treated ist Christian minorities well, despite what you might read in the web-sites of the Assyrian diaspora in the US. In the highly segregated city, Arab and Turkomen districts are materially much better off to the naked eye, with the former being new erand more desirable.

The Baathists manipulated planning regulations to prevent Kurds and Turkomen from maintaining their properties, which means that many are now beyond repair. Large parts of the city will need to be re-built, which leads some to favor a resolution in favor of unification with Kurdistan, where the three major cities of Dahok, Erbil and Sulaimania are thriving in the renewal of construction booms.In Kirkuk governorate council the Kurdistan list, 26 out of 41members, includes non-Kurds. The Kurds made efforts to reach a powersharing accommodation with the non-Kurdistan lists, but were initially rebuffed, and both Arabs and Kurds protested at the behavior of the Kurds leading many analysts to predict worse to come.

When I visited Kirkuk in 2004 and again in 2005 some Arab politicians in Kirkuk told me that the Peshmerga were organizing the expulsion of Arabs, but this was denied by Kurdish spokesmen, and was not then supported by Assyrian and Turkomen politicians whom I met, and I found no credible evidence other than a rumor mill. There was,however, a noticeable difference in viewpoints between the Sunni and Shi’a Arab politicians, and in how Kurds saw them. The former, “old city”Arabs, not among the recent settlers, were keener on constructive crosscommunity relations, and Kurds were wont to say that they had no issues with them – at least before Saddam’s time.Turkomen politicians privately conceded they were no longer the largest group in the city, though they invariably argued that Turkomen founded the city. The Turkomen Front, sponsored by the government of Turkey, fared much less well in elections in 2005 than Turkish commentators or the Government of Turkey expected. So Turkey has lost interest in using the Turkomen’s votes as leverage. Sunni Turkomen politicians find it visibly difficult to explain why Turkey did nothing for 10 them during the high-tide of Saddam’s Arabization. The Turkomen Shi’a, by contrast, have sought alliances with Shi’a Arab politicians, and someof them reject the idea that they are a national diaspora of the Turks.Erfan Kirkuly, the Secretary-General of the Iraqi Turkomen People’s Party and the Assistant Governor on the City Council in 2004, told me:”We are a national community, but we did not come from Turkey; we do not want to be used as political pawns [by Ankara]; we can sort out our own matters; we should compete not on the basis of ethnicity, but on the question, ‘Who serves Kirkuk best?'”

Like all non-Arabs whom I met,Kirkuly remarked that Kirkuk was the richest city in the world, if valuedby the resources underneath it, but had the worst services of any major city in Iraq.Calling Kirkuk a tinderbox, or a powderkeg or a flashpoint is perhaps exaggerated. It implies that slightest provocation will lead to protracted and deeply vicious violence of the kind that has occurred inother Iraqi cities. It is true that the place is multi-ethnic; it is true that itis multi-religious (containing Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Christians);it is true that each of the major groups (Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen)and the smallest (the Assyrians) claim to be the original inhabitants. And it is true that Saddam’s manipulations led all communities, and all their politicians, to have emotional and material stakes in Kirkuk’s territorial status, and that at interfaces in the segregated city ugly episodes have occurred, and that jihadists have made suicide attacks. It would be obviously wrong to imply that Kirkuk is about to become a place where the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity are celebrated.Yet the fact is that the city has been comparatively quiescent in relation to most commentators’ expectations since 2003. That is because the Kurdistan security blanket now, most of the time, extends to much of governorate – after the Americans reversed their initial decision to ask the Peshmerga to withdraw. Security was arguably weakened by the redeployment of Peshmerga brigades to assist the surge in Baghdad but now seems to be improving again. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been unable toprovoke sustained national or sectarian violence in Kirkuk. Realisticassessments of the security situation by the Iraqi federal government and the American military suggest that Kirkuk’s security has been best managed by Peshmerga units operating under the uniforms of Iraqi federal forces.

The city has been relatively quiescent because most Kurds, in general, have patiently awaited justice rather than taking the law into their own hands. Kurdistan’s security blanket has prevented jihadists from establishing effective bases, and from a policing perspective there are good reasons to believe that the Peshmerga will manage the incorporation of Kirkuk governorate with relative ease.

Such spontaneous and voluntary returns of Kurdish expellees as there have been have been relatively orderly – even if they have led to grim11 squatters’ dwellings. What will matter therefore in preventing fuselightings,in preventing the metaphors of the tinderbox, powderkeg and flashpoint from being confirmed as accurate, is whether the KRG can provide credible and sufficient assurances to the minorities that will be joining the Kurdistan Region.The KRG is the safest place in Iraq. It is the place in Iraq to where internally displaced people flee. That is significant testament, albeit aforced one. The Kurdistan Region is now unified. It is spending its money on economic development and professional security. The two major parties of Kurdistan, the KDP and the PUK, have operated an effective deal in which the PUK leads for Kurdistan in Baghdad while the KDP leads within Kurdistan. Both of Kurdistan’s major parties know that after unification with Kirkuk governorate it is vital to have sustained powersharing and proportional representation arrangements in the city, and are presentative police service. They have already made good faith effortswith partial success in these directions. They have members from all minorities on their lists. They know that proportional representation has worked well within the KRG to give the major and minor parties a stakein the political system, and they will extend these arrangements to thenew minorities.

Within the KRG inclusive policies have operated for all national, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities – permitting a tolerant climate very different to the rest of Iraq. Of course, it will be a challenge when minorities expand in numbers but at least the administrative experience is present.There is also no question that large-scale reconstruction will be the first priority of the KRG after an affirmative referendum on accession,and that this will offer positive improvements for all communities. Rebuilding will, with luck and good management, be more important than replacing people in future. The KRG realizes that the natural resources of Kirkuk, for the first time, must be used to benefit all the local populations, and used to create a decent material infrastructure.

The unhappiness of the city at present flows from its unresolved status – inwhich it neither receives full support from either the KRG or the federal government. Fair employment in the oil industry is a sine qua non of social peace. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani knows the KRG will bejudged by how it treats the minority nationalities and religious communities of Kirkuk, and is ready for the challenge – promising that Kurdistan’s regional constitution will be exemplary in its protections forminorities.The Property Claims Commission must work – and returnproperties or compensate those who lost out. There must be sufficient and transparent funding for the settlers who were induced to come – whobenefit twice, from Saddam and from the new Iraq – but the price of12peace is worth it. Reports from Kirkuk suggest that thousands of families have signed up to relocate.10.The KRG is keen to demonstrate to Turkey that the unification ofthe Kurdistan Region poses no threats to Turkomen, or to Turkey. TheKRG is working to make Iraq’s constitution work; it seeks the recognitionof its constitutionally authorized autonomy, not secession. It is hopefulthough not certain that the newly elected Government of Turkey, whichis prioritizing its economic development, will not wish to encouragemilitary adventurism over Kirkuk, and that both the European Union and the US will encourage Turkey to respect Iraq’s constitution, at leastin these crucial respects.In the controversies ahead – over the time-table, the electoral register, the voting, and the implementation of Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution – bear this analysis in mind. Instability is more likely toarise from the failure to implement Article 140, rather than from ist implementation.11

It is the one flatly time-tabled obligation in theconstitution, and it has not been met. Failure to implement the articlewill render both the KDP and the PUK vulnerable to their Kurdishnationalist critics, and encourage Kurds who would be otherwise lawfulto take matters into their own hands.The fact is, however, that unification of Kirkuk with the rest ofKurdistan is most likely to occur, and with much less international anddomestic resistance than is presently predicted.The process of unification will extend the zone of peace and stability within Iraq, provided the KRG lives up to its promises to ist prospective new influx of minorities. A fourth large urban center will addto the Region’s infrastructural construction boom, and increase itsproportionate entitlement to Iraq’s shared oil revenues. The Kurds will only have themselves to blame if they mishandle the minorities ofKirkuk. Their leaders have no intention of allowing that to happen.Look at matters in another light. The minorities of Kirkukgovernorate are divided. The Sunni Arabs of Kirkuk cannot hope togovern Kirkuk, or to bring Kirkuk into a Sunni Arab region. Mutatismutandis the same is true of Shia Arabs. The Arab vote in future will be split among numerous parties and lists. Many Shia Arabs are taking the funding on offer and leaving the region – amid much talk local rumor and gossip about corruption. The Turkomen are divided between Sunni andShia, and have shown that they are a small minority within Iraq, and no longer even the second largest ethnicity in the governorate. They do not aspire to being delivered by a Turkish conquest, and when they are sensible know that no better event could be designed to endanger their lives.

The Kurds are reaching out to local Sunni Arabs, and to Arabs in general: the elected Arabs have recently gone back onto the council in an accommodationist deal brokered by a leading Kurdish politician. The elected Arabs agreed to end their boycott in return for a power-sharing compromise: the post of deputy governor, and an agreement to split civil posts equally, 32% to each of the three major groups, with 4% reserved to the other minorities – though Turkomen continue to boycott the council.12 In short, it is possible to see the outlines of a local powersharing settlement with numerous minorities who are not cohesively opposed to the KRG’s territorial ambitions. Kirkuk’s minorities should bargain now for appropriate guarantees and rights within the KurdistanRegion – which has not yet issued its draft constitution.

The Terrible Turk thesis

Another standard cliché predicts a Turkish invasion to prevent Kirkuk’s accession to the KRG. In another variant Turkey will only be prevented from invading because the US fear of the terrible Turk will lead the US to squeeze the KRG into canceling the Kirkuk referendum.Now admittedly, and regrettably, there is some evidence for the terrible Turk thesis. Not so long ago Turkish special operatives were caught red-handed by American troops on their way to assassinate the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk. The Government of Turkey occupies Iraqi land, and it has authorized military incursions to pursue pockets of the PKK in the Kandil mountains, and the US, to its present shame, has facilitated the Turkish military with its intelligence facilities, eventhough it is responsible for protecting Iraq’s airspace from outsidepowers.But do Turkish military activities against the PKK within Iraq’s territory (justified or not – and I think they are not justified; and effective or not – I think they are ineffective, and have led to the deaths of innocent Kurdish civilians), have any necessary consequence for what will happen in Kirkuk?Any Turkish invasion to block the outcome of a democratic [12] referendum in a neighboring state will surely terminate Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU, and lead a future US administration to contemplate its expulsion from NATO. In 2002 Condoleeza Rice was ofthe opinion that it would be helpful to have a Turkish army in Iraq because it would be composed of Muslim soldiers. She is getting a sharp lesson in the merits of that absurd theory at present.In the eventuality of a Turkish invasion many European memberstates will put it to the US that they can have an alliance with the Canadian and European democracies or with Turkey but not with both.

One can invade other people’s countries and occupy them when one is a member-state of the EU; but candidate members of the EU are allowed no such privileges. One can invade and occupy other people’s countries if one is the US, but to invade and occupy at the expense of the US’s regional ally is a much riskier proposition. Moreover, as a matter of practical military fact any Turkish invasion would add no less than100,000 combat-trained Peshmerga to those prepared to fight theTurkish military through guerrilla warfare, and it would lead to the withdrawal of all Peshmerga currently on loan to the Iraqi federal government and the US military. No one should doubt President Barzani’s determination to protect Kurdistan militarily if needs be. In short, the scenario of a Turkish invasion would utterly de-stabilize Turkey’s democratic and economic prospects, shatter the credibility of its military and political class, smash its relations with Washington and Brussels, and leave it in a much worse mess than it helped to create in Cyprus.

A Turkish invasion only makes any geo-strategic sense if theTurkish political elite are utterly persuaded that the Kurds are intent on using the Kirkuk oil-field to finance the formation of an independent state, and if they believe that the formation of such a state would be an existential threat to their own state. The first belief is false, as I have said. The second belief is equally misplaced – what Turkey needs is another secular democratic entity on its borders, interdependent with it in trade and foreign investment.

These elementary considerations are worth spelling out to Turkish diplomats, generals and politicians who are prepared to report the truth to the powers that be in Ankara – whether the democratic or the undemocratic power elite of the “deep state”.The Government of Turkey would be better advised to show scrupulous respect for Iraq’s constitution, which confines the status of Kurdistan to that of a regional government, and which locks in a reasonable deal over the revenues from Kirkuk’s oil fields, which should benefit the Turkomen, and will provide a boost to the economy of southeasternTurkey. [15]

Governments are not always rational, and rational choice scarcely provides an unanswerable account of why governments intervene inpotentially losable wars, but the Turkish state and parliament avoided participation in the US removal of Saddam in 2003 for wise though contingent reasons, and for similar reasons it will likely avoid an invasion and occupation of Kirkuk. It will, of course, be vital to keep the Turkish political class on a rational path by ensuring that the referendum is fairly organized, by transparently displaying that the KRGis not using the accession process for an immediate step toward independence, and that fair commitments are made to protect theinterests of the Turkomen – more generous ones than Turkey has so farmade toward its own Kurds.

The Crazy Kurd Conjecture

Let me deal finally with statements that I have heard in diplomatic circles that may not be directly attributed. Some people believe and others surmise that Kurds are embarked upon a carefully organized planto achieve both expansion and independence – using their allegedly naïve US ally to achieve this goal. Sometime this evaluation comes along with knowing admiration for the cunning of the Kurds. Sometimes I am told I must be assisting this process; sometimes I am flattered for helping it along.I yield to no one in my admiration for the skill with which Presidents Barzani and Talabani and their colleagues have managed the constitutional and democratic exit from the legacies of Saddam’s regime,and have subsequently navigated the bloody waters of Arab Iraq’s civilwar. But I am certain they are not planning Kurdistan’s independence.They are not crazy.

They do not wish to precipitate either a Turkish or Iranian invasion; they minimally need their political alliance with the major Shia parties of the South to make Iraq work; they need an accommodation with reasonable Sunni Arabs to balance against ShiaArab dominance; they and their parties do not benefit from a bloody Iraq which deters investors and economic development; and they have in Iraq’s constitution what they and their friends and relatives have fought for over several generations.

Why would they risk so much, achieveda gainst such odds, for a bloody romantic gesture? The so-called cunning Kurdish strategy to achieve independence does not exist, except in the minds of conspiracy theorists – who are almost as numerous as the oil barrels of the Middle East. That does not mean that Kurds will not fight to protect their homeland, or their constitutional rights, but it does mean they will not kick-start the new Iraq by breaking their constitutional commitments. Nor does it mean that [16] I am saying there will never be an independent Kurdistan; I am merely saying that it is neither being planned nor immediately likely.This analysis suggests that the accession – not the annexation – of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Region is a constitutional imperative, a democratic way of resolving a bitter dispute, and an administratively feasible enterprise, which neither need precipitate a new round of bloodshedding,nor generate new injustices. Rather what is required internationally, within Kurdistan and within Iraq, is determined planning to make the referendum process fair, and credible commitments by the KRG to protect the likely losers in the referendum – namely the minority nationalities of Kirkuk.[13]

All this is not beyond the wit of man; is partly under way; and provides an agenda which the United Kingdom government can assist.

The other disputed territories

Let me turn more briefly to the other “disputed territories”. Let us observe that most maps used in the European and American media usually fail to draw the existing March 19 2003 border of the existing KRG accurately. They usually fail to indicate that parts of Nineva,Kirkuk and Diyala governorates are already within the KRG’s jursidiction; and that, at least nominally, not all of Dohuk and Sulaimainia governorates are within the existing KRG.

These are two very practical reasons why the status of the disputed territories needs to be resolved. The boundaries of the KRG and the existing governorates do not coincide.The maps presented in western media reports also usually fail to specify that the March 19 2003 border of the KRG was established unilaterally by Saddam, not by the KRG; and it does not follow the lines of the 1970 Agreement between the Iraqi Government and the KDP. It is best understood as a brutal war-outcome, a Machiavellian maneuver by Saddam, and in no sense the product of local wishes, or democratic and constitutional resolutions. That is why it is admirable that the disputed territories should have their status resolved under Iraq’s constitution bythe democratic elected Regional Government in negotiations with the democratically elected Federal Government of Iraq. Look now at this map from The Economist. It distinguishes between land mainly under KRG control, and “dream” claims (though weare not told on what basis the dreams were recorded). Dream claims isthe correct wording for some of the domain near and south of Baghdad,[13] which I have never heard advocated by any living Kurdish politician.SHOW map from The Economist does not indicate either old or new governorate boundaries or districts, which will be the most likely units inthe necessary negotiations.

By contrast, the magazine the NationalGeographic has some useful displays, though they do not name all thekey cities and towns at stake. The first map, however, shows the statusquo fairly well.SHOW MAPT he second roughly plots current versus projected KRG territory after presumptively successful negotiations. Almost all of the affected areas have Kurdish super-majorities, and where they do not some of the dilution of Kurdish demographic strength is the outcome of recent movements of internally displaced peoples. No sensible person contests the presence of strong Kurdish majorities in places such as Sinjar, Makhmur or Knanaquin.

Almost all of the affected areas either have strong links to the major Kurdish parties or have benefited fromemergency support from the KRG, but plainly all the affected citizens would benefit from the regularization of their relationship to the KRG.Let me suggest reasonable principles which might guide theresolution of the territorial disputes between the KRG and the rest ofIraq:First, the governorates of Dohuk, Sulaimania and Erbil should be wholly incorporated within the KRG (modified where necessary to their pre- Baathist boundaries).Second, all of Kirkuk governorate should be subject to normalization based on the 1968 boundary, but consideration should be given to district or sub-district optoutafter the referendum.Third, the districts of Aqra, Sheikhan, Sinjar, Tel Afar & Qarquosh should be informed by UN evaluation of local preferences – where there are significant doubts about local preferences then there can be a local plebiscite.

These districts should be covered under the provisions for ther elevant minority rights in the KRG constitution.Fourth, the same policies should apply for the sub-districts of Zammar, Bashiqua, Aski Kalak, Khanaqin and Mandali.Lastly, KRG claims made on Badra and the sub-district ofJassan should be subject a principle of reciprocity — Kurds should, in return, accept opt outs of districts or subdistricts 18 of Kirkuk governorate that are adjacent to the rest of Iraq. If the resolution of the disputed territories outside of Kirkuk, as well as of Kirkuk itself, are jointly suitably sensitively handled then wewill see a significant expansion of the territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government, though not such a significant rise in its population share, because many of the wide expanses of territory are sparsely populated.What would be the consequence of an expanded Kurdistan Regionwithin Iraq – and I emphasize within Iraq? It will, firstly, give added impetus to those inclined to form regions elsewhere in Iraq, as they may lawfully do under the constitution.

The KRG is a success story, and on the analysis presented here its success story will expand across a widerswathe of Iraq, and show that minorities within regions can be securely,democratically and decently protected. Second, it will resolve the decade sold Kurdish-Arab national question in Iraq by demarcating the borders of the Kurdistan Region in a manner commensurate with local democratic preferences, and historical and geographical realities. That in turn will make the KRG a satisfied party within Iraq, and there fore able to make the rest of the federation work better with full commitment because obligations toward it will have been met. It will enable the KRG to work as a full partner with Arab dominated Iraq, either in an asymmetric federation in which it is treated distinctively, or as one region amid other larger regions – which offer the prospects if not the assurance of both self-government and shared government for all of Iraq’s major communities.

These are not fantastic vistas. What is a fantastic vista is to imagine that one can stabilize Iraq by postponing much longer there solution of Kirkuk and the disputed territories.

Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an international constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government and has advised the KRG on the protection ofnational, linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities. He writes here in asolely personal capacity.


1. “Iraqi Kurds agree to postpone key vote on oil city” (7/12/2007 16:05 ARBIL, Iraq, Dec 17 AFP). The AFP reports that the KRG “has agreed to delay by six months the referendum on the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk” …. Nechirvan Barzani … told AFP that his government favored postponing the vote… Barzani said the vote had been delayed “for technical reasons”. He added that the six-month extension should be used for a UN-supervised mechanism to sort out the issue of … The Kurdish parliament, which heard UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura support a six-month postponement, should soon ratify such a delay, MPs said.

2. An English language Google.com search in December 2007 specifying “Kirkuk”+”oil-rich” returned 190,000 entries. The article cited in note 1 uses “oil city”, another popular phrasing.

3. “Iraq Oil: Reserves, Production and Potential Revenues”, CRS Report for Congress, April 2005.

4. For a detailed account of the relevant provisions see Brendan O’Leary, “Federalizing Natural Resources inIraq’s Constitution”, in David Malone. Ben Roswell, and Markus E. Bouillon (eds.) Iraq: Preventing a NewGeneration of Conflict (Boulder, Co: Lynne Reinner), pp. 189-202. The accuracy of these constructions wasupheld by Professor Nik Haysom of the United Nations who attended the conference which produced thevolume just cited.

5. In December 2007 an English language Google.com search specifying “Kirkuk”+”tinderbox” returned 559entries, “Kirkuk”+”powderkeg” returned over 900 entries, while 57,200 entries were returned for”Kirkuk”+”flashpoint”. Peter Galbraith in The End of Iraq, calls Kirkuk a “ticking ethnic time bomb”.

6. Sadettin Ergec, the leader of the Iraqi Turkomen Front, claims he want to save Kirkuk as theTurkome’s capital, and earn it special status.

7. Kirkuk and all the disputed territories were included in the maps presented by Sharif Pasa to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and by representatives of the Iraqi Kurdish Rizari party to the United Nations in1945 – in the first case the territorial claim preceded knowledge of the oil-fields of Kirkuk. The mapsreproduced are in Brendan O’Leary et al Right-Sizing the State: The Politics of Moving Borders (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press, 2001, pp. 256-8).

8 A good account of the history of Kirkuk before and during the Mandate period can be found in CecilEdmonds, Kurds, Turks and Arabs: Politics, Travel and Research in North-Eastern Iraq, 1919-1925. (London,Oxford University Press, 1957). See also Ahmed, Kamal Mudhir Kirkuk and its Dependencies: Judgment ofHistory and Conscience. A Documentary STudy of the Kurdish Issue in Iraq. (Sulaimania, Roon PrintingHouse, printed at the expense of the Kurdistan Regional Government, 2004).

9. About 25,000 to 30,000 Kurdish families have returned since 2003, according to the KRG’s Office for Settlement and Compensation, which coordinates the return of Kurds. But only some Arab settlers have moved, and just 2,000 disputes have been formally settled(http://www.aina.org/news/20071205111320.htm) While the first wave of Kurdish families have been able toreturn to homes, those who followed endured suffering; some were forced into abandoned army barracks.There are uncorroborated accounts of Kurds forcing Kirkuki Kurds to return, thus instigating accusationsthat they are illegally trying to compel the referendum outcome while the people suffer. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/world/middleeast/09kirkuk.html In April 2007, Turkish intelligencesources claimed that Kurdistan President Barzani had “offered bribes to various Iraqi officials” involved in the Commission (http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/6312972_p.asp). The validity of this account has no credibility given the track-record of accuracy by Turkish intelligence sources, but the stance of the Turks istelling.

10. To date, about 1,000 Arab families have received compensation, and less than 3,500 more have signed upto leave, but it is well to recall that these are large families.http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5i8uepxMjqNMWzj2xVH1uAeKERjEQD8SVNJTO0

11. “Mas’ud Barzani… has warned that “if Article 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war”,cited in, Sumedha Senanayake, “Iraq: Kirkuk Referndum Likely to Be Delayed”, September

12. 2007, RadioFree Europe, Radio Free Liberty,

13. http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/09/77A2D8AB-39B5-43DC-9A49-672B349D17B3.html

14. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5i3hvorMuUqgdPDZQauhZxGLCYyjA



17. There is no reason why the city should not be separated for political management from the governorate, made tri-lingual or quadra-lingual, given an entrenched and proportional representation electoral law, and entrenched quotas in key administrative positions.

Encyclopaedia of Kurdistan Online “KURDISTANICA”