Kirkuk, Sadr and the Jaafari Impasse

Posted by Cutler on April 26, 2006

In an earlier post I identified several issues that might have been behind the Jaafari impasse. Recent news makes me think that one issue in particular–the question of Kirkuk and Kurdistan–may be worth additional attention.  I refer to the Washington Post news report, highlighted by Swopa, of growing tension between the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Kurds of Kirkuk. The report featured Kurdish complaints that Sadr was moving elements of his militia to Kirkuk.

Let’s start with some basics. The city of Kirkuk is home to approximately 40% of Iraqi oil reserves. The city sits atop key oil fields that have been central to the geopolitics of the region for decades. Check out, for example, the prominent place given to discussion of Kirkuk in Ludwell Denny’s 1928 book We Fight for Oil (incredibly, the full text of this long-forgotten out-of-print book is actually online! must be something about the title and our times…hmmm).

Iraq’s Kurdish minority considers Kirkuk to be the capital of “Kurdistan“–a would be nation-state betrayed by the West after World War I that includes sizeable populations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Kurds accuse Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party of displacing many Kirkuk Kurds; of importing Arab Sunnis and poor Shiites from Sadr city to live in Kirkuk; and of redrawing provincial boundaries to separate Kirkuk from the Kurdish provinces. Iraq’s Turkman minority also calls Kirkuk home.

Since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Kurds have maintained autonomous control of the Kurdish region of Iraq–except for Kirkuk. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 ignited Kurdish hopes that a new political structure–especially a new Iraqi Constitution–might allow them to achieve three major goals:

1. Resettlement of Kurds to Kirkuk: This is often referred to as the “normalization of Kirkuk.” The aim is to use population resettlement to reclaim property and restore Kurdish dominance and control within Kirkuk. Arabs (Shiite and Sunni)–and the Turkman population– fear being marginalized and displaced as Kurds reclaim property.

2. Annexation of Kirkuk: At present, Kirkuk is not formally part of the autonomous Kurdish region. Kurds hope to annex Kirkuk and make it formally part of the Kurdish region. Resettlement is, in part, a necessary condition for establishing a population able to win annexation of Kirkuk in any future referendum. Any referendum raises enormous questions about eligibility to vote and Kurds can be expected to press for maximum geographic coverage and Kurdish predominance within the electorate.

3. Federal Autonomy for Kurdistan: The “federalism” demand centers on political control of natural resources, i.e., oil. In a Financial Times editorial (originally published August 16, 2005) the Prime Minister of autonomous Kurdistan demanded Kurdish control over all new/undeveloped oil fields in the region, including the unexploited fields of Kirkuk.

The broad coaltion that aligned itself against Jaafari–the Kurds, Iyad Allawi, and SCIRI–have all made their peace with the Kurds. However, Muqtada al-Sadr–the key player that allowed Jaafari to win the Shiite nomination for Prime Minister after the December 2005 elections–has declared Kirkuk to be a red line. In a February 2005 interview with al-Jazeera, cited in the Washington Post, Sadr gave a clue to the root of his particular brand of Iraqi “nationalism”:

“The problem with Kirkuk is the presence of oil in it… It should be in the ownership of all Iraqis. No one has the right to demand Kirkuk.”

Sadr is often depicted as a radical ideologue. On the issue of Kirkuk, however, he may simply be playing the part of a pragmatic politician defending his constituency, the impoverished Shiites who settled in Kirkuk during Saddam’s rule and who fear being displaced by Kurdish resettlement plans, not to mention the impoverished Shiites of central Iraq who remain in Sadr city and who would be left with no oil wealth if federalism prevailed in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south.
The Jaafari Impasse may have been, at least in part, about Kurdish perceptions that Jaafari–and his Daawa party–were willing to jettison Kurdish concerns about Kirkuk in order to build and maintain an alliance with Sadr.

So far, it is difficult to figure out how Kirkuk figures in the settlement of the Jaafari Impasse. It is certainly possible that the Kurds–who started playing hardball with Jaafari over the issue of Kirkuk since the summer of 2005–decided to back down. They may have decided, under pressure from the US, that their best bet was to renew their alliance with the Shiite parties. Did they get anything in return? Unclear. Did Sadr retreat from his red line on Kirkuk? Unclear. If the Kurdish leadership (or more specifically, Talabani) retreated, look for a split in the Kurdish ranks, especially if Barzani tries to make hay out of Talabani’s compromised position.
If, however, Kirkuk figured as part of a compromise agreement and if the compromise was achieved by moving the question forward in time–to the promise of a 2007 referendum on Kirkuk, for example–then this might explain the recent flurry of news about tension between Sadr and the Kurds over settlement and resettlement.
Is everyone trying to stack the deck ahead of an upcoming referendum?

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