Quiet as a Burning Fuse

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Iraq may have fallen out of U.S. headlines, but tension in Kurdistan threatens to reignite the war.

By Brendan O’Leary in Kurdistan

Let no one claim they were not warned. 

The decision of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to deploy some of Saddam Hussein’s old generals and the new Iraqi federal military in Kirkuk province will send Arab Iraq back to war with Kurdistan unlessthe U.S. administration uses its military and diplomatic power wisely, and quickly. 

A little bit of history: In 1974-’75, Iraq’s Baathists and Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish Peshmerga went to war over Saddam’s failure to include Kirkuk within an autonomous Kurdistan. The Baath Party won that encounter, thanks to the Shah of Iran and Henry Kissinger’s decision to drop support for Barzani. 

Saddam knew the province had a pro-Kurdistan majority, and set out to reverse that fact. He expelled thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk city and the surrounding countryside, and forcefully Arabized Christians, Turkomen, and Kurds, obliging them to change their names and public identities. He brought in Shiite Arab settlers from the South, and redrew Kirkuk’s boundaries, excluding Kurdish-majority districts and adding Arab-majority districts from other provinces. 

When Saddam’s regime was overthrown, many Kurds returned, and some Arab settlers left for their provinces of origin. The Americans and British stepped in, however, to freeze this reversal of Saddam’s injustices. Nevertheless, two elections in 2005 demonstrated that despite Saddam’s endeavors, there is a pro-Kurdistan majority within the current boundaries of Kirkuk. The Iraq Constitution of 2005 was decisively approved by voters in Kirkuk, as it was in most of Iraq. Its Article 140 enables Kirkuk to join the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peacefully and democratically—after the expelled are returned, and the settlers paid to leave. (The latter has been happening, slowly.) 

But with tacit American and British support, and the endorsement of an unholy alliance of Iran, Turkey, and Syria, Maliki has deliberately prevented the full implementation of Article 140. 

Maliki has short-term electoral gains in mind. He wishes to pose as a champion of the Arabs of Iraq. His longer-term goal is a recentralized Iraq, with the federal government becoming a central government far more powerful than envisaged in Iraq’s constitution, and in full control of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves. 

Maliki is playing with fire. 

The constructive way forward is clear. Iraq’s recent provincial elections demonstrated that decisive and overwhelming majorities of the voters in the districts and sub-districts of the disputed territories outside of Kirkuk voted for the parties and candidate lists in favor of unification with the KRG. Instead of noting this clear and democratic outcome, the Western press and Western diplomats have focused on hailing the provincial elections as a triumph for Maliki, despite the fact that he won a majority in no province, and did well only in Shiite majority provinces. 

This bizarre misreading of the evidence needs to be corrected. The long-suffering peoples of the disputed territories should be permitted to unify with the Kurdistan Region, forthwith. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), tasked with mediating on Article 140, needs to read the electoral data and ask itself: What is the problem? The answer is UNAMI itself. 

Kirkuk requires different treatment, in accordance with Article 140. It needs its old borders restored. A referendum on its territorial status should take place at the same time as Iraq’s next federal elections, offering voters the chance to join the KRG or not. The electoral register must include all those still living who were expelled from Kirkuk, and their descendants who are resident in Iraq. It must exclude all the settlers brought in by Saddam, as well as their descendants. Otherwise Saddam will dictate the electoral register from his grave. 

Numberless U.S. diplomats, think-tank members, and crisis organizations have called on the Kurds to compromise on Kirkuk. What they mean is that the Kurds should abandon their claim to a province that is rightfully theirs—by constitutional law, and by local democratic preferences. That is not a compromise. It is like asking England to abandon Kent, France to abandon Nice, or America to abandon California on the grounds that a foreign empire—followed by a foreign monarchy, followed in turn by a fascist dictatorship—decreed that they belong elsewhere. 

Kurds cannot compromise on the territorial status of Kirkuk, nor will they trade its territorial status for concessions elsewhere. What they can compromise on is the governance of Kirkuk city after it joins the KRG. Kurdistan’s government has shown a willingness to include in its constitution power-sharing guarantees to the minorities within Kirkuk: Christians, Turkomen, and the long-term Arab residents. These could be modeled on the provisions in the Northern Ireland Assembly, enabling the formation of a power-sharing executive based on each party’s share of the local provincial vote. Kirkuk could also be made the site of two supreme courts: that of the Kurdistan Region, and that of Iraq, which has yet formally to establish its supreme court under the Constitution. 

I have not yet used the phrase “oil-rich” to describe Kirkuk. That is because there is already a constitutional resolution to manage Kirkuk’s oil revenues. Under the 2005 Constitution, the revenues from Kirkuk’s oil fields that were already in production are to be shared, and allocated across Iraq as a whole. Moreover, the Constitution grants a joint role in management (not ownership) of the exploited oil fields to the federal authorities. 

Maliki’s decision to play with fire is based on the specious excuse that federal authorities should supply the military and police authority in Kirkuk. But the Constitution does not say that the federal authorities have security supremacy within the disputed territories. They are, after all, disputed. The Peshmerga forces provided security there during Arab Iraq’s civil war. They prevented Kirkuk from descending into the maelstrom of violence that characterized Arab cities. They will not leave before Article 140 is implemented. Trying to force them to leave will precipitate another war. Is that what the Obama administration wants? 

The Obama administration must strongly discourage Maliki’s gambit, and commit itself to protecting Iraq’s Constitution—in full, not selectively. Only that way will it be possible to leave Iraq without further eruptions of massive conflict.

The mad project of encouraging a re-centralized Iraq will inevitably lead to further internal or external wars, and prevent the responsible exit from Iraq to which President Obama is committed. 

The case for supporting a re-centralized Iraq has nothing to do with the welfare of Iraqis. It rests instead on the idée fixe that America should back a strong Iraq to balance against Iran. But the Obama administration has opened détente with Iran. That suggests it knows there is a better way. It should complete its sums: There is no case for risking the chance that Maliki will become another Saddam, and no case for risking another war between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan.

Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science and author of How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). He was a constitutional advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government during the making of Iraq’s Constitution. He was also an advisor in the making of Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement.

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