Is Flag the only Problem in Kirkuk?

As one of the most controversial regions in Iraq, Kirkuk has once again become the main topic of national, regional and international agenda. While the fight against DAESH continues in Iraq, flags of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have beenraisedover the public buildings in Kirkuk upon the decision of the Governor of Kirkuk, Najmaddin Karim, and this very decision has brought about a great discussion. It would be very shallow to evaluate what has taken place in Kirkuk over the flag crisis on the basis of onlythe current conjuncture. The tension in Kirkuk is a result of a long-term process. That is why it would be useful to evaluate briefly what has happened in Kirkuk in short, medium and long terms within a historical process.


Kirkuk after 2003: Contention and Uncertainty

Within the process following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kirkuk became one of the most controversial issues in Iraq. The Kurdish political groups in Iraq have put an intensive pressure on Kirkuk that they consider as the "key to the independent state". According to some statistics, more than 600,000 Kurds were immigrated to Kirkuk after 2003. The population of Kirkuk which was around 840,000 before the US invasion showed a sharp increase in a short time.The population of Kirkuk is currently known to have exceeded 1,6 million. After 2003, the Kurdish political groups made the de facto autonomous region in the north of Iraq gain a legal status with the support they received from the US, and the KRG was officially recognized by the Transitional Administrative Law adopted by the United States in Iraq in 2004. With this option they obtained, the Kurdish political groups started their efforts to expand the boundaries of the de facto autonomous region created in 1991, benefiting from the power vacuum in the country.

In fact, some parts of Mosul, Salahuddin and Diyala as well as Kirkuk took the status of "disputed territory" by the 140th article of the Iraqi Constitution which was adopted by a referendum held in 2005. Thus, the future of the territories which werelegally under the control of the Iraqi central government; however, some parts of which were de facto controlled by the Peshmerga was also opened to discussion. At the same time, in order to identify the future of Kirkuk, the 140th article brought along a process to determine the status of Kirkuk by means of a normalizationwhich would solve the problems resulted from forced population change policies in Kirkuk and, in its aftermath, of population census and referendum by December 31, 2007. However, even the first phase of the process expected to be accomplished till the given date identified in the 140th article failed. Hence, as the date of December 31, 2007 already passed, the validity of the article spontaneously came to an end.

However, the pressure on Kirkuk put by Kurdish political groups increasingly continued. Kurdish directors were appointed to almost all of the administrative units responsible for the administration of Kirkuk. Especially after Najmaddin Karim was designated as the Governor of Kirkuk, new settlement areas and neighborhoods were established for the Kurds. In fact, by a decision made by Najmaddin Karim, Turkmen lands were nationalized and new housing projects were realized for the Kurdish settlers.


The Breaking Point of Kirkuk

The real breaking point in Kirkuk took place in June 2014 as DAESH assumed control in Iraq. Upon DAESH’s dominance in the district called Havice in the south of Kirkuk, the Iraqi army retreated from Kirkuk. Thus, all control in Kirkuk was left to the Peshmerga and Kurdish political parties,which meant the de facto cut of political and administrative connections between Kirkuk and the Baghdad Administration. Following this process, the Kurdish groups increased their pressure in Kirkuk. While the PKK terrorist organization’s existence showed an increase in and around Kirkuk, the Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim approved the PKK presence in Kirkuk by hosting the terrorists in the official office of Kirkuk Governorate.

Besides, instead of the elected deputies of the Iraqi Parliament in 2014, the Chairman of the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly Hasan Turan who was elected asthe deputy in the 2014 Iraqi Parliamentary Elections was by proxy replaced by Kurdish-origin Rebwar Talabani. The candidates who were found appropriate to replace Hasan Turan were either eliminated from the voting by the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly due to several pretexts or not approved by the Governor. Thus, the Kurds took on the task of the Presidency of the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly, too. On the other hand, no opportunity was provided to make elections to replace Munir Kafili,Chairman of the Kirkuk City Council who was assassinated in June 2014.

On the other side, in the wake of the DAESH occupation, the Kurdish control over petroleum in Kirkuk also increased. In Kirkuk, 2 out of the 5 oil-drilled areas were completely controlled by the Peshmerga. Upon the given development the Iraqi central government had to reach an agreement with KRG on Kirkuk petroleum. Therefore, KRG that has no official and legal rights on Kirkuk petroleum started to earn income from the named resource in Kirkuk. Nevertheless, the developments in Kurdish domestic politics, the KRG effort to enlarge after DAESH, the position of the Iraqi central government, the increase of the PKK's activities in Kirkuk, the existence of Hashdi Shaabi, and Turkish-Iranian competition in the regional context took the level of contention to the top.


The Meaning of the Flag Crisis in Kirkuk

As seen, the contention over Kirkuk is one of the most significant pieces of the post-2003 Iraqi politics. For this reason, whereasit is crucial in the symbolic sense that the KRG flag has been raised over the public buildings in Kirkuk with the decision taken by the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly upon the decision of the Governor of Kirkuk Najmaddin Karim, it is not possible to explain it only by a debate on the flag. Indeed, it is possible to see the parts of the big picture in Kirkuk only by looking at the developments taking place in the last 2 months. On February 20, a preliminary agreement in the field of energy was signed between Iran and Iraq on the transfer of oil and natural gas in Kirkuk via Iran by means of a new oil pipeline. Afterwards, on February 27, President of KRG, Masoud Barzani, paid a visit to Turkey and for the first time,during this visit, the KRG flag was raised at the airport. On the pretext that the Iraqi central government cut the budget given to the KRG, a PUK-affiliated armed group launched a strike against the North Oil Company of the Iraqi central government in Kirkuk and the KRG Spokesman Sefin Dizayi, identified this very attack as an irresponsible behavior.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi visited Erbil and Sulaymaniyah on 7 March and met the KDP and PUK officials, and some rumors emerged as Barzani and Abadi reached an agreement on the sale of oil of Kirkuk via Turkey. And the last component of this series of developments was the circular letter sent to the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly on March 14, 2017 by the Governor of Kirkuk Najmaddin Karim which provided for the raising of the KRG flag along with the Iraqi flag over the public buildings on official days in Kirkuk and for the use of Kurdish as an official language of the Kurdish as well as Arabic. While especially the Turkmens opposed the given decision, the Iraqi central government, Turkey and the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed their concerns about the said decision made by Najmaddin Karim, and stated that unilateral steps taken in Kirkuk would prejudice the stability of the city, peaceful living and fraternity in the city. In fact, the Iraqi central government warned that the Iraqi Ministry of Finance will cut the salaries of all civil servants in Kirkuk unless this decision which is against the Iraqi Constitution is not withdrawn.

However, despite all these explanations and warnings, on 28 March 2017,in a meeting which the Turkmen and Arab members boycotted and did not participate in,the tension in the city increased with the ratification of the circular letter by the Kurdish members of the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly, and the immediate raising of the KRG flag over the official buildings in Kirkuk. Especially the Turkmenshave been organizing manifestations to protest the decision taken by the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly. Nevertheless, it is possible to say that the reaction of Turkmens will not be limited to this very action. For the President of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk Deputy of Iraqi Parliament Erşat Salihi made a statement and stated that in case the decision continues to be implemented, the Turkmen would have no choices but an armed resistance and that they could even dare to get into conflict with a view to protectingthe identity of Kirkuk. The Iraqi Parliament rejected the KRG flag in Kirkuk at its meeting on April 1, 2017 and made a decision regarding the raising of only the Iraqi flag over public buildings. However, looking at the statements of the Governor Najmaddin Karim, it is possible to signify that he will not step back.

Even those that have taken place in the last two months displace the complexity of the Kirkuk issue. The tension and dynamics of the conflict in Kirkuk may increase in the coming period. These dynamics have more than one meaning. It is evident that an ethnic tension rises in Kirkuk. There is a tension especially between the Turkmens and the Kurds. What is more, there exists a renewed rivalry between the KRG and the Iraqi central government in terms of authority in the region. This situation may lead to the deterioration of the coordination between Baghdad and Erbil in the fight against DAESH which has been carried out through joint operations. However, the only contentious region between Arbil and Baghdad is not Kirkuk.


Kurdish Internal Politics and Balances

The unilateral step taken by Najmaddin Karim in Kirkuk has the potential to affect the balances in the KRG domestic politics. For, there exists a cold war between the KDP and PUK-Gorran in KRG. As a result of the political crisis resulting from the extension of the presidency period of Masoud Barzani n the summer of 2015, the government in KRG has become almost inoperative. The KRG Parliament has not been able to meet for a long time. At the same time, there is a serious economic crisis in the KRG. Even the education could not be initiate dassalaries of the civil servants could not be paid, and the given crisis was overcome by the partial payments realized in the aftermath of the crisis. However, it is not possible to say that economic problems have been solved. The PUK is willing to take advantage of this weakness of the KDP in order to have a recover and increase its own strength. Since in September 2017, general elections should be held at KRG. Even if the postponement is also on the agenda, the PUK wants to use this advantage before the elections. For this reason, Najmaddin Karim’s move about the flag is a big plus for the PUK. The Kurds show Kirkuk as the key to the independence of the KRG. They describe Kirkuk as“Jerusalem of Kurds”. The raising of the KRG flag in Kirkuk increased the popularity of Najmaddin Karim and PUK in Kurdish domestic politics. Even some expressions such as "Najmaddin Karim achieved what Masoud Barzani could not" are among the most used sentences among the Kurds in the recent period.


Barzani and the Turkish Position

Mesut Barzani’s moves are not completely over. Masoud Barzani does not want to lose his decision making and executive power at the KRG administration to the PUK and let it be the main actor on the way to independence. As a matter of fact, Masoud Barzani and the KRG administration did not display great reactions against the flag issue in Kirkuk. It is not possible for Masoud Barzani to oppose this step taken by Najmaddin Karim. However, bringing on what his hand is stronger to the agenda again, Masoud Barzani mentioned the issue of independence referendum during his last visit to the UN representatives, and held a meeting with the PUK to establish a commission on the independence referendum; nonetheless, Masoud Barzani is not in a position to face Turkey which opposed the raising of the KRG flag in Kirkuk in the current situation. Today, the only way to sell oil of Kirkuk directly is the Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline, meaning Turkey. In line with the agreement reached between Baghdad and Erbil, Kirkuk oil can be sold through Turkey. In the recent period, a serious step has been taken to overcome the problems regarding the relationsbetween the Iraqi central government and Turkey, and good relations between the two countries have been re-established. Turkey also voiced her clear support, by all her relevant authorities, for Baghdad on the issue of the flag crisis in Kirkuk. For this reason, Turkey needs to be persuaded so that Kirkuk oil can be sold at a level that can relieve the KRG administration even if the KRG obtains full control over Kirkuk. Nevertheless, Turkey's hard stand over the Kirkuk issue is a contradiction for the Kurds.

The Iranian Influence

On the other hand, KRG is also likely to sell Kirkuk oil via Iran. Currently, it is known that the Kirkuk oil has illegally been sold via tanker trucks to Iran. It's not a secret. On the road between Kirkuk and Erbil, trucks with Iranian license plates can be seen every minute. Even if they go through this sales method, it is difficult to earn enough income to finance the KRG. Therefore, a new oil pipeline will have to be built. At this point, it is required to recall the agreement signed between Baghdad and Tehran on 20 Februaryto mind. Anyways, the PUK which hasthe control of Kirkuk has much better relations with both Baghdad and Iran than KDP. That is why it is also likely that the PUK has preferred to follow such a path with a view to increasing its effectiveness within the KRG. Such cooperation, however, may lead to problems in terms of the integrity and cohesion of the KRG. On the other hand, we should not ignore the rumors such as the PUK wants to establish a separate federal zone including Sulaymaniyah where it is effective after the PUK links Kirkuk to the KRG. Even though the very situation takes the back from its independence process, Iran which voices at every opportunity that she is in favor of the territorial integrity of Iraq and Baghdadwhich does not want to lose her income deriving from natural resources in the north may welcome it. What is more, Baghdad and Iran can also use Hashdi Shaabi and go into the effort of creating a security circle. Here, the position of Turkmens who oppose the steps taken by the PUK in Kirkuk and act together with Hashdi Shaabi will be significant. The emergence of a partnership between the PUK, Baghdad and Iran over Kirkuk will mean the limitation of Turkey's influence on the KRG.

The US position

Here, the US factor should notbe ignored. The US which remains silent about the flag crisis in Kirkukstands as one of the actors who would play the most critical role in the political and administrative restructuring of Iraq in the post-DAESHperiod. It is seen that the US which proved to be the biggest supporter of the KRG in the process of independence in the post-2003 period has not clarified its attitude towards Kirkuk. However, it is noteworthy that during the operation carried out by the PUK-affiliated armed group onthe North Oil Company, Najmaddin Karim, founder of the Washington Kurdish Institute and known to have a very good connection with the United States, was in the United States. Here,considering the rumors that the PUK action has been tolerated by the United States or that Najmaddin Karim, taking advantage of the leadership problems within the PUK, has been acting independently from the PUK's headquarters, we encounter the possibility that regarding it as an opportunity that Najmaddin Karim is abroad in the US, the PUK headquarter has sent a message to Karimwith the support it receives from Iran. Nevertheless, especially after Donald Trump's presidency, if we think that the US would not want to see Iran increase her control over Iraq, it seems rational that the US may have pursued a policy aiming at increasing tension in a controlled manner.

The most losing side seems to be the Turkmens regardless of which probability is taken into account here. The emergence of a direct ethnic tension between the Turkmens and the Kurds, the contention between the Kurdish domestic politics, the tension between the KRG and Baghdad, effects of the rivalry between Turkey and Iran, and the possible filling of the security gap in Kirkuk by terrorist organizations like DAESH and PKK limit the living space of the Turkmens. Especially the unilateral steps that the Kurds take in Kirkuk trigger the solutionlessness and conflict in Kirkuk. As the actors who influence and are influenced upon the Kirkuk issue are taken into account, it should not be overlooked that the possibility of conflict crossing the provincial borders of Kirkuk may activate the dynamics of national, regional and international conflict. That is why unilateral steps about Kirkuk should be avoided and solutions should be produced to support common and peaceful life in a way that is appropriate to the demographic, political and administrative structure of Kirkuk.

The original form of this article was published in Al-Jazeera Turk in a shortened form