An uneasy truce in Kirkuk

Kirkuk seems to be entering a period of political agreement, after all the tension and crisis in the city recently.

This has lessened the anger of the Turkmen population, but the Arabs are still unhappy about the way Kurds are ‘engineering’ the distribution of political posts.

In a ceremony on 7 March in Sulaymaniyah city to mark the anniversary of the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein, President Jalal Talabani described the oil-rich province of Kirkuk as the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan" and said that it should be annexed into the Kurdish regions.

Azad Jandiyani, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Patriotic Union (KDP), said that Talabani was speaking in his capacity as Secretary General of the KDP and not in his capacity as President of the Republic.

But this explanation was not enough to appease the wrath of the Arab and Turkmen political forces in Kirkuk or Baghdad.

Politicians from both the Arab and Kurdish sides said that these statements had two implications. First they would reinforce Kurdish demands in Kirkuk; second, they would dilute Kurdish anger by rousing nationalistic feelings among the Kurdish people, especially in Sulaymaniyah province, which, since 17 February, has been witnessing continued protests calling for general reforms.

A statement issued by the Turkmen Front in Kirkuk accused Talabani of stirring the emotions of the people living in the Kurdish region.

Muhammad Khalil, the Arab member in the Kirkuk Provincial Council said that Talabani’s statements were contradictory to his position as a President of Iraq.

A week after Talabani's statements, in a move that surprised people in Kirkuk, Kirkuk’s Governor, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, and the Head of the Provincial Council, Rizgar Ali, who are both members of the Kurdistan Alliance, submitted their resignation.

They did so, they said, because of the current situation in Kirkuk province and because it was extremely difficult to satisfy all parties.

However, sources within the Provincial Council said that the resignations came after a deal was reached between the Kurdistan Alliance, which has 26 of the 41 Provincial Council seats, and the Turkmen Front, which has 9 seats.

A leading member of the Turkmen Front, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Niqash that the agreement was aimed at reconciling both parties. It would allow the Turkmen Front to hold the Presidency of the Provincial Council, while giving the Kurd’s the post of Governor, he said.

The Kurds then announced that they had nominated Najm ad-Din Kareem, from the Kurdistan Alliance and a member of the Iraqi parliament, for the Governor post.

Meanwhile, the Arab parties say that the agreement was reached at their expense. They are demanding that the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen should each get 34% of the posts in the province, with the Christians getting 4%.

The Arab bloc has issued the following statement: "The mechanism by which the President of Kirkuk's Council, Rizgar Ali, and its Governor, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, were replaced was political and is a violation of the rules.”

“The Arab bloc stands against such agreements which are decisive in determining the Province’s fate.”

But this so-called deal reached between the Turkmen and Kurds is not the only reason why the Arab political parties are angry. Another reason is that thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been deployed in the southern and western areas of Kirkuk city, which have an Arab majority.

They were brought in on 24 February, the eve of the Day of Rage demonstrations around Iraq, “in order to protect the city from the chauvinist Baathists, who want to destabilize security in the disputed areas, especially in Kirkuk,” according to a statement by Sheik Jaafar Mustafa, Kurdistan’s Minister for Peshmerga Affairs.

Arabs say that the Region’s government has taken advantage of the demonstrations in Kirkuk to strengthen the Kurdish military presence in Arab areas.

On 19 March, the Arab Political Council in the province issued a statement demanding the equal distribution of power among the three main constituents of Kirkuk, as well as the full withdrawal of the Kurdish forces.

It wants the Iraqi Army 12th Division to be deployed in Kirkuk and the security brief given to the Kirkuk Police Directorate, “which should handle security and bring stability to the Province."

Another demand is the release of detainees held by the Kurdish security forces since 2003.

The Kurds, who have not yet commented on the resignations, say that the presence of the Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk is legitimate.

Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the Region’s Minister for Peshmerga Affairs, told Niqash that the Peshmerga entered Kirkuk Province with the consent of the Iraqi government and the US forces.

“Our duty is to protect all citizens without any discrimination whatsoever,” he said.

None of the parties wanted to comment on the undeclared agreement reached between the Kurds and Turkmen, nor on the fate of the Peshmerga forces deployed in Kirkuk.

They all stressed that the resignation of the Governor and the President of the Council was aimed at bringing the different sides of the conflict closer to each other and promote stability in the city.

While some of the people of Kirkuk are busy predicting the shape of future relations between the different political forces in the province, there are others, like Usama al-Nujaifi, the Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, who are demanding the creation of an autonomous Kirkuk region, independent of the governments of Kurdistan and Baghdad.

But the Kurds insist on the implementation of Article 140 of the Constitution, as the best solution to Kirkuk’s crisis, as well as to the other disputed areas.

Article 140 stipulates the “normalization” of the demographic conditions in the Province to counter the effects of the policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which led to the deportation of Kurds and their replacement by Arabs.

It also stipulates that a referendum should be held to allow the people of Kirkuk the right to self-determination and to decide whether they want to be part of the central government in Baghdad or join the Kurdistan region.

According to national and international observers, the problem of Kirkuk is among the most difficult issues yet to be resolved after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

According to the analyst and writer, Yahya Barzanji, the city is like “a gunpowder barrel that could explode at any minute and lead to a civil war in many areas of Iraq.”

"Any agreement that does not involve all the constituents of Kirkuk, including the small minority of Christians, will bring the whole country back to square one,” he said.

“With this in mind, it is not hard to predict the results of ignoring Arabs and excluding them!”