The status of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk lies at the centre of a growing tug of war between Arabs and Kurds, which many fear may push the two sides towards conflict. A long-awaited referendum over the
Niqash met Muhammad Khalil al-Jibouri, head of Kirkuk’s Arab List, to inquire about the work of the “Article 23 Commission”, developments in Arab-Kurdish relations and the future of the province.
Niqash: Following your recent meeting with Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Region, do you feel that there is any change in the Kurdish desire to annex Kirkuk?
Jibouri: The meeting with Massoud Barzani was an opportunity for a constructive dialogue. We submitted a memo detailing Arab demands, which were the same as those submitted in mid-December to the President of the Republic. Among these demands was a request for a quick intervention to reach solutions on pending issues between the different parties. One of our major demands is that Kirkuk be given a special status with a decentralized administration that enjoys broad authority according to article 122 of the constitution. This is the national project which we believe will provide solutions to Kirkuk’s conflict, in addition to the sharing of power (joint administration) and the participation of all major components according to article 23 of the election law.
Niqash: How do interpret the warning of Nejervan Barazani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, of potential civil war between the Arabs and Kurds if U.S. troops withdraw before the Kirkuk issue is settled?
Jibouri: I do not believe that an Arab-Kurdish war will erupt if U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq. I also don’t believe that U.S. forces are a guarantor against the eruption of conflict. U.S. troops should leave according to the timetable set out in the security pact between Iraq and the United States. With regard to the outbreak of a civil war between Arabs and Kurds if no settlement is reached, I don’t think that such speculation is realistic because all parties know that conflicts cannot be resolved by violence and wars but rather by respect of the constitution which was approved by the Iraqi people. I want to stress that Arabs in Kirkuk want peace and dialogue; they do not want to spark wars and ignite tension.
Niqash: At the end of 2007, after a one year boycott, you reached an agreement with the Kurds to return to the provincial council. What were the details of this agreement?
Jibouri: The agreement was reached on December 2, 2007. One of the articles stipulated a joint administration of Kirkuk and one of its results was that Arabs were granted the post of deputy-governor and the chairmanship of the judiciary council. All other articles are stated in the election law and we are trying to overcome all difficulties entailed in applying these articles.
Niqash: Iraq's parliament has formed a fact-finding commission to investigate the situation in Kirkuk? Do you expect the commission to succeed?
Jibouri: Everybody in Kirkuk wants the commission to succeed. None of Kirkuk’s components opposed or contested the tasks or the formation of the committee which is composed of two Arabs, two Kurds, two Turkmen and one Keldo-Assyrian. An executive committee formed from all the provincial council components will provide support to the commission in matters related to its work.
Niqash: To what extent do the Americans and British play a role in the conflict? Are they exerting pressures on political blocs?
Jibouri: All issues related to Kirkuk are being dealt with according to mechanisms established by article 23. The biggest role is being played by the United Nations, which is seriously assisting the commission to complete its tasks. Additionally, different roles are being played by other international bodies that have declared their support for the work of the committee. We believe that resolving Kirkuk’s crisis is a key to resolving all other unsettled disputes Iraq. Regarding pressures, until now there have been no local or external pressures exerted on any political or ethnic bloc. All steps taken are in-line with the Iraqi national spirit and its interests and are based on consensus and dialogue to resolve all problems.
Niqash: Kurds want to reclaim the rights of thousands of Kurdish families displaced by the former regime; Arabs and Turkmen say that a number of returning Kurdish families have seized public property and committed violations in the city. How many families do you think were displaced and can you prove the allegations made against those that have returned?
Jibouri: The number of families varies. Arabs and Turkmen give different figures than those given by Kurds on the number of displaced Kurdish families. In all cases, the real numbers are much less than those given by the Kurds. Regarding violations, article 23 has clearly stipulated that the issue of confiscated private and public property after April 9, 2003 should be resolved. In Kirkuk today, all government buildings, dissolved army camps and facilities, sports stadiums and former premises of the Baath Party are under Kurdish control. There are hundreds of cases filed at the Property Claims Commission in Kirkuk regarding such violations.
Niqash: Kurdish parties refuse to register Arabs coming to the city in the electoral register. Will you participate in elections if they succeed in blocking Arab registration?
Jibouri: There is a legal mechanism which will be adopted by the fact-finding commission according to the stipulations of article 23 regarding the registration of voters in the city of Kirkuk. We have submitted to the Arab representatives a working paper containing our viewpoint and our suggestions regarding this issue. None of our suggestions contradict the law and none of them will lead to any unfairness or injustice to other parties. We stress that any citizen who comes to Kirkuk is an Iraqi citizen and should enjoy all the rights and privileges but should also respect his duties as stipulated by the constitution which applies to all Iraqis and everywhere in Iraq.
Niqash: There are rumors of growing conflicts between you and the Turkmen after your return to the provincial council and your meeting with Barzani?
Jibouri: Nobody should tell us who we can meet… we are free to meet with any person we want to meet with. Arab demands are similar to those of the Turkmen in many areas and Arabs have no conflict with other ethnicities. We feel that Kurdish demands are moving closer towards a consensus-based solution.
Niqash: How is it possible to end Kirkuk’s deteriorating security situation?
Jibouri: Terrorism, which targets all areas of Iraq and not only Kirkuk, is behind the deterioration in security. But we believe that allocating 32 percent of security apparatus posts to Arabs and equal ratios to the Turkmen and the Kurds will lead to an improvement in security conditions and the performance of the security apparatus.
Niqash: How do you assess the performance of al-Maliki backed tribal awakening councils in Kirkuk?
Jibouri: Awakening councils are present in the Arab areas of Kirkuk. They have been present for more than one year and they are performing their job in a normal manner. We did not hear and nor do we feel that there is any objection to the work of awakening councils in Kirkuk’s districts. These entities, together with the army and police, have proved that they are capable of safeguarding property and security.