Political Storm Clouds Over Northern Iraqi City Of Kirkuk
The first crisis for the new parliament may involve the question of who owns the northern city of Kirkuk. Recent elections have increased divisions and upcoming provincial elections could make things even worse.
Who owns them? The streets of Kirkuk. (photo: شوان نوزاد)
It is one of the most contentious subjects on the political agenda for the Iraqi Kurdish politicians who will be working in Baghdad for the next four years. Of all of the so-called “disputed areas” that Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds are fighting over, there is no place more conflicted than the city of, and area around, Kirkuk.
One of the most successful Kurdish parties in the recent elections, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, has already promised voters it would bring up the idea again in the parliament in Baghdad. The PUK won the most votes in Kirkuk in May this year and have said they believe that the mechanism originally created to deal with the issue of disputed territories – Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution – is the right way to proceed.
Baghdad now claims that the Kurds in this area have engaged in their own process of “Kurd-ization” in Kirkuk.
Article 140 was supposed to solve the problem of different claimants to different parts of Iraq. Officials in Iraqi Kurdistan say certain areas – such as Kirkuk - belong to the Kurdish region but the Iraqi government says they belong to Iraq proper. Part of the problem around these areas is so-called Arabization – a process started by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as he tried to eliminate the Kurdish people and force Kurds off land they had always occupied; he brought in Arab Iraqis to take their place.
Article 140 sets out to change this with a series of steps to resolve who exactly the disputed territories belong to: These are, firstly, normalization - a return of Kurds and other residents displaced by Arabization – followed by a census taken to determine the demographic makeup of the province's population and then finally, a referendum to determine the status of disputed territories. Obviously whether a territory is home to mainly Kurds or mainly Arabs will have an effect on who can lay claim to the area.
Over the past few years, Article 140 has been held up as the solution to this issue but has, somehow, never been enacted. De-facto control of Kirkuk recently passed from Iraqi Kurdish military forces to Iraqi federal forces, thanks to the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence.
“We must go back to Article 140 to address the issues in Kirkuk,” says Ribwar Taha, an MP and head of the PUK delegation in Kirkuk. “It provides a good solution and talks about different steps to take, on how to determine the province of Kirkuk’s borders in the future.”
However, as Taha also points out, that is going to be a very tough ask. “There are a lot of problems that require a joint decision,” he says, adding that this kind of unity among politicians is virtually impossible to come by right now.
Kirkuk has a mixed population demographically speaking, with significant numbers of Iraqi Arabs and Turkmen also living there. As if to prove that point about unity, Arab and Turkmen officials say they want to do away with the term “disputed areas” altogether.
Last October when sleepr cells from the IS group raided Kirkuk, locals took to the streets with their own guns.
After the Kurdish referendum on independence, the Iraqi government pushed back against the Kurdish authorities who had organized it, forcing the Kurdish military there to give way to the Iraqi military. Now the city is being run by Iraqi military. The Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk say that this settles the questions over Kirkuk and that Article 140 is no longer necessary.
There’s also the fact that Baghdad now claims that the Kurds in this area have engaged in their own process of “Kurd-ization”, bringing in more Kurdish from other areas to settle in Kirkuk and currying political favour with other locals. The Turkmens believe that neither the Kurds nor the Arabs really want to settle Kirkuk’s future.
The elections in May have also sewn further division in Kirkuk. Neither the Arab or Turkmen parties are happy about the results and accuse the Kurdish parties of electoral fraud. They have been holding demonstrations to demand a manual recounting of ballots.
“The number of votes were changed with forgery,” Hassan Turan, the MP for the Turkmen Front from Kirkuk, told NIQASH. Turan believes that solving the Kirkuk problem will become more urgent in the very near future, mainly because of what happened in October when the Iraqi army arrived here. “We expect a lot of the discussion in the next parliament to have to do with Kirkuk,” he says.
The upcoming Kirkuk provincial elections, scheduled for the end of the year, are also going to cause big problems if problems around political representation are not solved, Turan adds.
Local Arab politicians appear to quite like the way things are right now and believe that the question hanging over Kirkuk should be resolved in Baghdad.
“The big operations carried out by the Iraqi government here [in October] with tens of thousands of soldiers and air support led to the expulsion of security forces who were trying to control Kirkuk and to separate it from the rest of Iraq,” says one of the Arab politicians, Burhan al-Asi – he’s referring to the Kurdish troops who were in charge before. Al-Asi also says that he thinks life in Kirkuk is now “normal” because of that change.
“We are working in parliament to keep conditions in Kirkuk normal,” al-Asi argues, “and to keep them as they are now, in order to protect the lives of all the different groups who live here.”