- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

One of the most important yet underreported stories about Iraq is the situation in Kirkuk, where Shi’ite and Sunni, ethnic Turkmen and even Christian Arabs and the government of Turkey are campaigning against efforts to incorporate the city into the Kurdish region. While international media attention is focused on Baghdad and Anbar province, the deteriorating security situation in northern Iraq — home to some of the country’s largest oil reserves and a region that has become a prime target of jihadist terror during the past 15 months — has largely gone unnoticed. Iraq’s 2006 constitution mandated that residents of Kirkuk are to vote on the future of the city, home to nearly 800,000 people, in a referendum that is scheduled to occur by Nov. 15.

Critics of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — controlled by the two major Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talebani, the current president of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — accuse the KRG of using terror and intimidation in an attempt to drive out Arabs and Turkmens to ensure Kurdish domination of the area. The KRG denies that it is attempting to drive anyone out and says that all it wants to do is enable Kurds expelled by Saddam Hussein to return to their homes. Added to the combustible mix of ethnic, tribal and religious tension is the fact that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Kirkuk region contains approximately 6.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves — approximately 8 percent of the total in Iraq. A British firm estimates that with further exploration, Iraq could increase its reserves to between 10 and 20 billion barrels.

Turkey is deeply concerned about the referendum, which it sees as a critical step towards the creation of an independent Kurdish state to its south; Ankara also charges that the KRG has only paid lip service to Turkish concerns about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist group responsible for more violence resulting in the deaths of more than 30,000 people in Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s. The PKK, which became virtually moribund after Turkey captured and imprisoned its longtime leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, has had a resurgence in northern Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago, and is carrying out attacks inside Turkey once again.

In their defense, Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq point to Saddam’s brutal campaigns to “Arabize” Kirkuk and surrounding regions. According to Human Rights Watch, after the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi dictator expelled more than 120,000 Kurds, Turkmens and Christians from that region of the country, and he is believed to have moved hundreds of thousands of Arabs, mostly poor Shi’ites from southern Iraq, into the Kirkuk area to replace them. In addition, Saddam forced Turkmens and Kurds to register as “Arabs” — further skewing Kirkuk’s demographics against them.

The KRG’s critics suggest that Kurdish authorities are engaged in their own discrimination against non-Kurds, up to and including driving them out of their homes. In a policy paper titled “The Battle for Kirkuk: How to Prevent a New Front in Iraq,” Soner Cagaptay and Daniel Fink, scholars at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, point to disturbing published reports of “cases of intimidation and violence to force out Arabs involving arson, the killing of livestock and gunfights — some of which were reportedly facilitated by Kurdish peshmerga [security] forces belonging to the PUK and KDP. The Sunni Turkmen population, hitherto the city’s largest ethnic group and the foundation of its urban elite, has all but disappeared.” But Kirkuk’s population has nonetheless increased during this period because so many Kurds have been migrating to the city. Messrs. Cagaptay and Fink suggest that financial support from the KDP and PUK has enabled hundreds of thousands of Kurds — including many who have never lived in Kirkuk — to move into the city. Thanks in part to “population engineering” of this sort, the KDP/PUK alliance has gained an absolute majority on the al-Tamim provincial council, where Kirkuk is located.

For their part, Kurdish authorities deny that the KDP, PUK or the regional government are using coercion against non-Kurds. But this much is clear: At some point, perception becomes reality, and northern Iraq and Kirkuk in particular have become much more violent since the beginning of 2006. Between July and October, there were 20 suicide bombings perpetrated in Kirkuk, most of them believed to have been carried out by al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni terrorists. At the same time, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a Tehran-linked Shi’ite terror group, has joined the al Qaeda forces in targeting the PUK and KDP, and suicide attacks, improvised explosive devices and assassinations have all become part of the landscape in Kirkuk. Last week, there were rumors (apparently unfounded) that Ankara and Baghdad had agreed to postpone the Kirkuk referendum for two years. It is difficult to see much good — and easy to see a lot of bad things — that can come from holding such a vote later this year or anytime soon.

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