ARBIL – The security situation in Iraq’s northern oil rich-city Kirkuk has deteriorated over the past few weeks as a constitutional deadline approaches to determine the fate of the city.
The city is home to a mix of Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs, with the population of each hotly disputed.
Bombings on Feb. 3, 6, and 16, and three more Feb. 21 rocked the disputed city. The bombings coincided with a move by an Iraqi government committee to implement Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution that seeks to reverse demographic changes brought about in Kirkuk by the regime of former president Saddam Hussein.
Under Saddam, tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmens were deported from Kirkuk and were replaced by Arab settlers from the south to tighten the regime’s control over the northern oil fields of the country.
That move eroded the traditional dominance of Kurds. But the new move to reverse the changes threatens also the Turkmens, a local people of Turkish origin.
"Without doubt the situation is very bad, and it has been become worse recently," Nazhat Abdulghani, a senior official of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), told IPS.
Iraq’s new constitution sets out a three-phase plan to "normalize" the situation in Kirkuk.
In the first phase, Kurdish and Turkmen refugees will return to Kirkuk, and Arab settlers will be given financial incentives to return to their areas of origin. The Iraqi government is offering each of these Arab families $15,000 and a piece of land. The returning settlers can transfer jobs to the areas they return to.
Also, in this first phase, predominantly Kurdish districts that were cut off from Kirkuk, like Kalar, Chamchamal, and Kifri east of Kirkuk, will be reattached to Kirkuk province. This phase is due to be completed by April this year.
Those settlers who do not want to leave will not be forced to, but will lose the right to vote and be denied other forms of participation in official decision-making.
The second phase provides for a census. That will then be followed in the third and last phase by an official referendum by the end of this year in which the population will vote on the destiny of the province.
Officials told IPS that the questions to be raised in the referendum have not been agreed yet. Some speak of a choice whether Kirkuk should be a part of the northern autonomous Kurdistan region or under the central government. Others say there must be a third choice whether Kirkuk should stand as a separate federal region similar to Baghdad.
The International Crisis Group, an international organization that works on conflict resolution, recommended in a report released last summer that Kirkuk must stand "as a stand-alone federal region falling neither under the Kurdish federal region nor directly under the federal government for an interim period."
Based on Article 53 of Iraq’s postwar interim constitution, many Turkmens and Arabs also demand the status of an independent federal region for Kirkuk. But that is strongly opposed by Kurds.
The debate on Kirkuk’s fate has gone beyond Iraq’s borders. Turkey, that has a sizable Kurdish population, vehemently opposes Kurdish control of Kirkuk, fearing it would embolden its own Kurds.
At a meeting with Iraq’s Shia Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for postponing the referendum on Kirkuk. "The conditions for holding the referendum in Kirkuk have not materialized yet," Erdogan told Abdul-Mahdi.
With outside and inside pressures increasing, some Kurdish circles now speak of a compromise to appease the city’s Turkmens, who would be the second major ethnic group after Kurds if and when Article 140 is implemented.
"We are ready for dialogue with the ITF or any Turkmen party on Kirkuk," Arez Abdullah, member of the Kurdistan regional parliament in Arbil, told IPS.
A Kurdish compromise with Turkmens could be in the form of some power-sharing formula and "safeguarding their national and cultural rights," Abdullah said.
"For example, they can run the administration in the areas where they constitute the majority of the population and can have more effective participation in Kurdistan government institutions and parliament."
Kurdistan parliament speaker Adnan Mufti said last year that Turkmens should be given autonomy in areas where they make up most of the population. That statement was intended to encourage Turkmens to vote for bringing Kirkuk within the Kurdistan region.
With ethnic tensions rising, and given the short period of time left and the security problems on the ground, many doubt the Iraqi government’s ability to implement Article 140.
"From a practical point of view, implementing Article 140 is impossible; there are many technical problems on the ground which have to be worked out," said Abdulghani.
He said his party is working "first for annulling, second postponing, and third modifying" the constitutional article.
Many Iraqis see Kirkuk as a time bomb that might go off at any moment and drag Iraq into a real civil war. Several urge a delay in implementing Article 140. Kurds see it differently. "The real bomb will explode if Article 140 is not executed," said Abdullah.