ARBIL – The security situation in the northern, oil-rich city of Kirkuk has further deteriorated over the past few weeks after the Iraqi government formed a committee assigned to "normalize the situation."
The creation of that committee under a constitutional provision has led to a rise in ethnic tensions between Kirkuk’s Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen populations. Violence has risen with the tensions.
September has been one of the bloodiest months for Kirkuk, with an unprecedented number of attacks. For many, the message behind the attacks is to stop implementation of Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution and to inflame sectarian strife in the province.
Article 140 sketches a three-step plan to remove traces of the Arabization policy of the regime of former president Saddam Hussein. The constitution now provides for a census followed by a referendum on the fate of the province, after normalizing the situation.
Some representatives of non-Kurdish groups in Kirkuk believe that Article 140 supports only Kurdish interests.
"We will act as an obstacle in the way of implementing Article 140," Jamal Shan, deputy head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told the Kurdish weekly Hawlati in Sulaimaniya. Shan’s party has close ties with Turkey and holds three seats in the Iraqi parliament. Implementation of the Article will "endanger the geography of Turkmen [territories]," Shan added.
Seen as a microcosm of Iraq for its mix of several ethnicities, Kirkuk awaits an uncertain future as disagreements about the future of the province increase. A victim of its oil wealth, Kirkuk has for long been a divisive issue in Iraq’s politics.
Many Kurds say Kirkuk is really a Kurdish province, and that large numbers of ethnic Arabs were settled there by the Saddam regime a move that Article 140 could undo. They also see the Turkmens, a people of Turkish descent, as outsiders. But each of Kirkuk’s ethnic groups claims historical ownership over the city.
Turkmens claim that Kirkuk has been historically a Turkmen-dominated city. Arab leaders say they were legally settled in the province and have a right to stay there. Kurds say that before the start of the Saddam-led ethnic-cleansing policies, Kurds constituted the majority of the population in the province.
Kurdish leaders want to speed up action over Article 140 in the hope of bringing Kirkuk into a Kurdish autonomous region.
"There is little time left for implementation of Article 140, but if there is goodwill in Baghdad then this remaining time is still enough," Mohammed Ihsan, minister for extraregional affairs in the Arbil-based Kurdistan regional government, said in a statement. He added that the regional government has various strategies to deal with contingencies that may arise over Kirkuk, but did not elaborate.
Interference by neighboring countries, most notably Turkey, is believed to have complicated the situation and rendered a solution more difficult.
Turkey claims it acts to protect the Turkmen community in Kirkuk, but not all Turkmens welcome its intervention. Turkmen leader Irfan Kirkuli says Turkmens will be better off joining a Kurdish autonomous area. He also warned against interference by outside powers, saying "they aim to create turmoil and tension in Kirkuk."
Turkey has been exercising diplomatic and local pressure in support of the Turkmens. Several commentators say Turkey wants to block creation of an autonomous Kurd region in order to limit the aspirations of its own Kurdish population.
Turkey also claims historical rights in Kirkuk, on the grounds that the city was ruled by Ottoman Turks for centuries until the creation of the modern state of Iraq in the 1920s.
During a recent visit by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Ankara, Turkish officials described the situation in Kirkuk as "critical," and asked him to "support Turkey over the current issue of Kirkuk."
Amid all these tensions, residents resent remarks that Kirkuk may become the "flashpoint" for an all-out civil war in the country. But not many are sure how the microcosm can withstand the larger divisions within Iraq.