Kirkuk is Iraq’s testing ground as a diverse and democratic nation. Many of Iraq’s problems in building a post-Saddam nation converge in that oil-rich and hotly contested northern city. Kirkuk is a microcosm of Iraq fragile unity, and as Kirkuk goes, so goes Iraq.
The city has a multi-ethnic history. Turkoman, Kurdish, and Arab communities (with a small number of Christians) commingled for centuries enjoying equal political rights and representation. Saddam disrupted Kirkuk’s delicate ethnic balance by diabolical forced relocations and Arabization.
After Saddam’s ouster, Kurds moved en masse into Kirkuk. Property disputes mushroomed. Kurds claimed de facto sovereignty over the city, and reinforced their arguments by deploying private ethnic militias. Arabs and Turkomans complained of discrimination and oppression.
The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), or interim constitution, temporized over Kirkuk, and the future governing and disposition of the city has confounded negotiations between Kurds and Shi’ites over forming an Iraqi government. Failure to resolve its status now will jeopardize a unified Iraq.
Article 58 of the TAL seeks to restore Kirkuk to its pre-Saddam character. It directs the Iraqi Transitional Government “expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime’s practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk, by deporting and expelling individuals from their places of residence, forcing migration in and out of the region, settling individuals alien to the region, depriving the inhabitants of work, and correcting nationality.” The article elaborates that, “With regard to residents who were deported, expelled, or who emigrated; [the Iraqi Transitional Government] shall, in accordance with the statute of the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other measures within the law, within a reasonable period of time, restore the residents to their homes and property, or, where this is unfeasible, shall provide just compensation.”
Implementation of Article 58 in Kirkuk has been lead-footed because Kurdish authorities have permitted only Kurds to adjudicate property claims. That ethnic discrimination should end. To obtain legitimacy, Kirkuk property disputes must be resolved by transparent rules of proof and by impartial judges above ethnic or religious suspicion.
Kirkuk is a cornerstone of Iraq. It must be included in the blueprint for restructuring the nation with the aim of restoring equality among the city’s constituencies. Kurdish domination can be avoided by giving Iraq’s national government authority over Al Tamim Province and the city of Kirkuk in particular.
At present, the national government is powerless to extend its laws, curfews or troop movements anywhere in Kurdistan. Kurdish officials, moreover, have voiced a desire to annex Kirkuk to a Kurdish province by majority vote despite Article 53 of the TAL. It prohibits incorporation of the governorates of Kirkuk and Baghdad into another region.
According to the final declaration of a March 19, 2003, meeting in Ankara between Turkey, the United States, and Iraqi opposition delegates, Iraq’s resources belong to all its people. Regional hoarding is taboo. Development and administration of Kirkuk’s vast petroleum reserves should thus be a responsibility of the national government, which should cool ambitions to dominate the city.
The ethnic militias deployed on the heels of Saddam’s overthrow should be replaced by a new local police force fairly representing Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs. Mass migration from other parts of Iraq to Al Tamim Province should be banned. And new property acquisitions should be strictly regulated to maintain the demographic equilibrium among Kirkuk’s three constituent communities. They should be represented on an equal footing in the administrative and political delegations that will represent the provinces in the central government.
Equal quotas should also obtain in Kirkuk’s local legislative, executive, and judicial offices, in the local police force, and in provincial elections. The three communities should rotate in occupying senior administrative positions, for example, the governor, mayor and the security and education directors. Senior officials should be complemented by two deputies representing the other communities.
Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic should all be official languages in Kirkuk and Al Tamim Province. All local legislation and regulations should be published in all three languages. Kirkuk’s three constituent communities and minorities should also enjoy the right to operate autonomous schools and social, religious, and cultural institutions in their respective mother tongues.
If Kirkuk succumbs to Kurdish domination, Iraq will ineluctably fragment along ethnic lines. The United States should exert maximum cajolery and incentives to make resolution of Kirkuk a standard to which all Iraq may repair.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.