Where does the process go in Kirkuk?
At the session held on 22 July in the Iraqi Parliament, the 22-article election bill for the provincial and district councils has been enacted and the date of the provincial council elections, which will be held for the first time in 15 years, in controversial areas, including Kirkuk, has been set as 1 April 2020. This bill exempts the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which held provincial council elections at a different date from the rest of Iraq. While Arabs and Turkmens support the bill on the grounds that the doubts having emerged in Kirkuk will not be repeated, Kurds define it as a “political decision that violates the rights of the Kurds”. While the repercussions of this decision continued, on 30 July, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court ruled that Article 140 on the status of Kirkuk and other controversial regions would remain in force, leading to another debate. It is noteworthy that both decisions came in mid-July after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced that it had reached an agreement with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to appoint a new governor to Kirkuk. It has been argued that Article 140 remains in force in favor of the Kurds. Recent developments are thought to have the potential to affect tensions between Turkmens, Kurds, and Arabs in many areas. At this point, it would be useful to put forward the positions of the parties in the Kirkuk issue.
Subjects of Dispute between the Parties
There is a controversy between the Iraqi federal government and the KRG on the status of the oil-rich Kirkuk, located 270 km north of Baghdad where Kurdish, Turkmen and Arabs live together. It can be said that the debates on the future of the city and governorship since 2005 which have been intensified in the last two years will have a different dimension with the bill and court decisions approved in the parliament. In particular, it can be said that the decision of Article 140 of the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq (FSC) resumed the process of status uncertainty in Kirkuk. Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution on the status of Kirkuk and other controversial regions (some parts of Saladin, Diyala, and Mosul) provides for the correction of demographic changes in the region, the conducting of a census and the holding of a referendum for the province to be attached to the KRG or to have a special status until December 2007. Prior to this date, the commission composed of Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab political representatives from Kirkuk lost its function at the end of 2007 as it failed to achieve any results on the implementation of Article 140. While the Kurds argue that Article 140 should be applied to determine the status of the city; Turkmen and Arabs argue that the article has legally come to an end at the end of 2007 on the grounds that the PUK and KDP changed the demographic structure of Kirkuk and other controversial regions. In this respect, the FSC’s decision that Article 140 should continue should be considered in favor of the Kurds. However, this decision fueled the discussions.
After the US invasion in 2003, the Kurds, who increased their strength in the city, desire Kirkuk to be attached to the KRG. In the provincial council elections held in 2005 in the 41-seat Kirkuk Provincial Assembly, the Kurds gained weight in the administration of the city as the Kurdistan Brotherhood List (KKL), composed of KDP, PUK and other Kurdish parties obtained 26 seats while Turkmens and Arabs had 9 and 6 respectively. As a matter of fact, while Kirkuk governors were selected among Kurds after 2003, Molla Mustafa Barzani's doctor, Najmiddin Karim from PUK, was elected as governor in 2011. After the Iraqi security forces left the city as a result of the 2014 attack of the ISIS, the peshmerga strengthened its power in the city, but on 16 October 2017, following KDP leader and former KRG chairman Massoud Barzani's referendum decision on 25 September 2017, Iraqi Army and Hashd al-Shaabi forces seized Kirkuk and forced the peshmerga out of the city. After PUK Governor Karim left the city, then Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi appointed Karim’s vice-governor Rakan Saeed al-Jabouri as the acting governor.
Like the disputes between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens in Kirkuk, the conflict between the KDP and the PUK affects the stability of the city. As a matter of fact, the KDP blamed the PUK for the transfer of Kirkuk to the Iraqi administration in the wake of the referendum. In addition, not participating in the parliamentary elections held in Kirkuk on the grounds that the city was “occupied” on 12 May, the KDP has been boycotting the Kirkuk Provincial Assembly sessions since 2017. Although the KDP, which closed its offices in the city after 16 October, declared that it would not return to Kirkuk, it gave signals to return to the city since the end of the first year. In this process, the KDP's insistence on the election of the governor of an independent person among the Kurds for the agreement of the parties in the city and the normalization of the situation caused the relations with the PUK to be strained. On the other hand, having won 6 seats in Kirkuk in the general elections held on 12 May 2018, the PUK claims that the governor should be elected from within their own parties. PUK spokesman Saadi Ahmed Pira said, “a member of our party will be the governor of Kirkuk. This is our right. For 6 deputies of Kirkuk which totally has 12 deputies belong to us”, showing the insistence by the PUK. As can be recalled, former KDP member and former KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was elected as chairman of the KRG with the support of KDP, Goran, Turkmen and Christian deputies at the session held at the KRG Parliament at the end of May; however, he could not join the PUK session. One of the reasons why the PUK protested the session was the dispute between the two parties regarding the governorship of Kirkuk. In addition, the formation of a government under the leadership of Masrour Barzani from KDP in the KRG on 30 September, 2018, approximately 9 months after the elections, was related to the sharing of ministries and the Kirkuk issue. As a matter of fact, in mid-July, the PUK announced an agreement with the KDP to appoint a new governor to Kirkuk and stated that the two parties agreed to appoint Tayyib Jabbar as governor. Despite the disagreements experienced, the agreement between the two parties on Kirkuk can be interpreted as the Erbil administration would not want to give up the city.
Reacting to the Kurdish parties' agreement on governorship, Turkmens and Arabs have adopted a stance in favor of current Governor Jubouri until the elections. However, leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Arshad Salihi said, “If a change occurs in the framework of a political alliance, a Turkmen should be the governor.” The Arabs, on the other hand, accuse the Kurdish parties of imposing their own will on the region and emphasize that the three main components of the city, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmens, should reach consensus on important issues. In this context, stating that Kirkuk should not become a political bargain, Kirkuk Arab Assembly Member Hatem al-Tai stated, “Kurdish political parties do not have the right to make unilateral decisions about Kirkuk.”
In addition to the question of how to determine the governor, it should be also emphasized that a similar approach has been taken in the return of the peshmerga to the city. While the KDP and PUK insist on the return of the peshmerga to the city, Arabs and Turkmens oppose it. In the meantime, it is known that the United States has met with the KDP and PUK regarding the return of the peshmerga to Kirkuk and proposed to establish a joint operation center consisting of the peshmerga, army and police forces. On the other hand, ITF President Arshad al-Salihi's statement on August 6 stating that an agreement was reached among the components in the city on the establishment of the “military protection force” composed of Turkmen, Arab and Kurds besides the central administration forces in Kirkuk reduces the likelihood of the peshmerga to meet with a fait accompli in the city. This situation necessitates the Kurds to meet with the other components of the city on a common ground for both the governorship and the return of the peshmerga.
The electoral draft law on provincial councils adopted on 22 July in the Iraqi Parliament envisions the election of provincial and district councils in all Iraq, including Kirkuk and other controversial regions, on 1 April 2020. The fact that the electoral registers in the city will be examined, and the identity cards, as well as the food certificates of the Kirkuk voters, will be subject to the identification in accordance with Article 35 of the given law upon the local elections in Kirkuk gets reaction from the Kurds. Given the claim by Arabs and Turkmens that the Kurds have been playing with the demographics of the city for a long time, this decision may be expected to deepen the debate. As a matter of fact, Amnesty International (AI) stated that Kurdish groups in the post-2003 period forced other ethnic groups to migrate and changed the demographic structure. In fact, ITF leader Arshad al-Salihi claims that the KRG has placed approximately 600 thousand Kurds in Kirkuk. On the other hand, PUK Kirkuk Deputy Rebwar Taha stated that he had reactions and reservations against Article 35 of the provincial election law regarding Kirkuk and said: “As Kurds and PUK, we are not opposed to the examination of voter registers in Kirkuk, but this must be done through new methods to be determined by the election commissioner and agreed by all parties.” In this respect, it can be considered that the current discussions between the parties may become intensified and lead to processes that will cause instability in the city.
Principles of Solution in Kirkuk
It is necessary to say that the lack of stability in Kirkuk has a serious cost to Iraq in terms of economy, politics, and security. According to US Department of Energy data, Kirkuk's oil reserves are 8.7 billion barrels and 6 percent of the country's proven oil reserves are in this city. In Kirkuk, which sold 600 thousand barrels of oil daily through Mosul until 2013, oil exports have come to a halt due to the occupation of the region by ISIS and the destruction it caused to oil pipelines. Kirkuk, which is one of the oldest oil fields in the region and is called “Jerusalem of Kurds” among Iraqi Kurds, constitutes an important part of the income sources of the Erbil administration. A consensus was reached between Erbil and Baghdad that KRG would sell the Kirkuk oil but transfer its money to Baghdad, and an article, signifying that “the Baghdad will pay civil servant salaries in the KRG in return of the transfer of oil revenues exported by the Kurdish administration”, was written in Iraq's 2019 budget. However, the KRG has not handed over its exported oil revenues to Baghdad since the beginning of 2019 and this situation was directly expressed by Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi himself. Thereupon, it was announced that a joint committee was established between Baghdad and Erbil at the end of July in order to deliver the revenue of the 250 thousand barrels of oil that the KRG exports on a daily basis to the National Oil Company SOMO. Given this dispute, it is understood that energy revenues in Kirkuk are a vital item in the KRG economy and that the future of the city will directly affect the relations between Iraq and KRG. Therefore, it can be predicted that a reasonable solution will be developed for the oil-rich city.
On the other hand, it is observed that the terrorist organizations ISIS and the PKK benefit from political and social instability in Kirkuk. As a matter of fact, according to a study conducted by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, it is seen that while the ISIS attacks in Iraqi cities have been declining within a year after the Iraqi government announced the defeat of ISIS in 2017, the attacks have increased in Kirkuk. It can be said that the increase in the attacks in the city is related to the political crisis. In addition, it has been observed that while the Iraqi Army was struggling to take the city back after the KRG's 2017 independence referendum, the PKK took to the streets on the pretext of defending Kirkuk. In 2016, Tevgera Azadi, the political pillar of the PKK in Iraq, which opened a representative office in the Daquq district of Kirkuk and whose office in Sulaymaniyah was closed by the KDP a few months ago, was alleged to have established a 25-member assembly for the establishment of “self-governance” in Kirkuk. Due to Turkey's military operations called Operation Claw 1 and Operation Claw 2 against the PKK in northern Iraq, PKK’s relations with the KRG and, in particular, the KDP became quite tense. The tension between KDP-PKK have deepened due to PKK’s attack against the Turkish diplomat in Erbil during which the latter was killed and to Turkey’s operations against the PKK. Therefore, it seems likely that the PKK would prefer the presence of the central government in Kirkuk to the KRG, where the KDP is active.
In the past, a proposal was put forward for the management of the city, which Erbil and the Baghdad lay claim to, over dividends of 32 percent among Turkmens, Arabs, and Kurds in security and administrative services. The proposal, which envisages giving the remaining 4 percent to Christians, aimed to end the tension between the parties. While the Turkmens and the Arabs favored the proposal, the Kurds remained reluctant to it. This proposal based on equal management sharing may offer a method to prevent the city from being taken under control by just one power in the short and medium terms. On the other hand, it is necessary to consider that ethnicity-based management can lead to a fragile system. Indeed, the formation of the government of Iraq following the war is the best example for this. Unless a healthy and lasting model based on democratic foundations has been developed in Kirkuk, the fragile structure may prevent the normalization of the relationship between Erbil and the Baghdad, leading to instability in the city and strengthening the hands of terrorist groups.
As Nechirvan Barzani, the new President of the KRG, attaches importance to diplomacy, the relations between Erbil and Baghdad may improve rapidly in the new period. In addition, Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Mehdi’s efforts to pursue an easy-going policy with the Kurds and President Barham Salih’s being a PUK Kurd may have a facilitating effect in solving the problems. Given, in particular, Iraq’s aim to deal with her internal problems in the new period, it can be suggested that a formula will be sought to calm all parties about Kirkuk. It should not be ignored that there has been an effort among the Kirkuk parties recently. At this point, it would be appropriate to say that finding a common solution based on a consensus will be the best option for Kirkuk and Iraq.