What’s the biggest issue right now with Iraq? If you ask the media, it is the struggle between the Shi’ah UIA list (a collection of political parties endorsed by Ayatollah As-Sistani) and the two main Kurdish parties to form a workable coalition government. As most of my readers may know, the major hang up in these negotiations has dealt with issues of Kurdish sovereignty and the final status of their beloved city of Kirkuk. Those who have been pessimistic about this process have argued that the Kurds and Shi’ah may never come to aggreement over these issues. I have always thought this wrong, because ultimately only the Kurds have a direct stake in the disposition of Kirkuk. It is, as they have called it, “their Jerusalem”. The interest of the Shi’ah are only obliquely related to Kirkuk.
But first, a little more background on Kirkuk. Again, as most readers will know, Saddam performed a brutal kind of ethnic cleansing on the city, driving out Kurds and resettling Arabs in the city (a sizable chunk, and perhaps a majority of which) were Saddam’s favored sect, Sunni muslims. This ethnic reshuffling served to cement Saddam’s control over the oil rich city, and helped deprive the Kurds of a base which could serve as a future economic font for their breakaway ambitions. Turkmen were also displaced in tis process, but did not suffer to the degree the expelled Kurds did. This situation has been in place for more than a generation now, enough time for the Kirkuk Sunni Arab population to begin to regard the city as their home, and to desire to strongly resist any attempt by the Kurds to reclaim their former sway in the city.
But that is exactly what the Kurdish parties are attempting to do. Several hundred thousand Kurds are encamped in the Kirkuk area, seeking to return to the homes from which they were dispossessed. An influx of this city’s former dominant ethnic group would assuredly give the Kurds the majority of the city’s population. They already
control the town council. Establishing Kirkuk as a Kurdish city by creating the facts on the ground to make it so is of paramount importance to the Kurds. Under the so-called Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq’s American designed proto-Constitution, Kirkuk will get to decide if it is to belong to the Kurdish administered portions of Iraq or not. With a majority Kurdish population and control of the town council, voting to join an incipient Kurdistan is a foregone conclusion.
So why have the Shi’ah have been resisting the Kurdish demands so hard? Because they know that if the Kurds have theit way with Kirkuk, the Arabs and Turkmen that will be displaced in favor of a Kurdish influx will have a powerful reason to support the ongoing Sunni insurgency, and extend its fight to norther Iraq, and area that has been comparatively peaceful up till now. Indeed, recent insurgent attacks in Kirkuk indicate that popular frustration of the Turkmen and imported Arab population may be boiling over. Consider the following quote from a benficiary of Saddam’s arabization program:
“We want our rights as human beings. We were based in Kirkuk and they don’t have the right to force us out of here. We can all live together because Kirkuk is for all Iraqis and not only for the Kurds. The government sees what is happening and never takes action against this discrimination,” Salah Abdullah, 45, father of five and displaced 5 km from Kirkuk, told IRIN. “I have prepared my gun in the case I have to fight for my rights because peaceful measures aren’t working anymore.”
And just yesterday there was this news:
Demonstrators from both Turkmen and Arab Shiites ethnic groups turned out for a rally held in the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk Friday night, to denounce the a transitional law and its article 58, which if implemented, would give the right of return to tens of thousands of Kurds to Kirkuk.
Local Sadr spokesman, Sheik Ahmed al-Lamy said, “Kirkuk must remain a city that belongs to all religions: Turkmen, Christian, Arabs and Kurdish, and that it must not be dominated by Kurdish rule alone.”
Yet all signs indicate that that is exactly what is going to happen. The following item was noted by blogger Nur Al Cubicle in the European press:
Baghdad. UIA demands that Allawi make up his mind. The UIA has demanded that Premier Iyad Allawi decide if he in going to participate in the new government being negotiated by the Shi’ite alliance. Meanwhile Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani says agreement has been reached on the status of Kirkuk. According to Article 58 of the Fundamental Law, the government must support the right of return to Kurds expelled from Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein’s Arabization efforts.
What is the final arbiter of the fate of Iraq? It will come down to the Kurds and how badly they want Kirkuk. It has been clear from the beginning that the Kurds intend to set up a sovereign and independent Kurdistan. That has been their dream, and everyone knows it…here and in Iraq. If the Kurds do decide that it is in there interest to appropriate Kirkuk to Kurdistan, as seems certain, things will only spiral downhill from there. One can pray that they see wisdom on this matter, but what are prayers to dreams of nationhood buried under the weight of disappointment for centuries, only now awakening to their possibility?