by Joost R. Hiltermann THE FATE of Iraq may well rise or fall on Kirkuk as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen .and Christians grapple for control of the province and the safety of their people. Oil riches abound in this land that straddles the border of Arab and Kurdish Iraq. And command of these resources is the prize for the taking. As the powers that be in Baghdad fight to hold on to the tenuous peace wrested from civil war, deciding the political fate of Kirkuk is treacherous enough to bring down the state. So far, the battle has largely taken place in a never-ending political drama, but if compromise cannot be reached—and soon—bloody conflict may well be the next step. I FIRST visited the Iraqi province in April 1991, driving up from Baghdad in an international humanitarian agency’s car. At the time, I was working as a consultant for the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, assessing civilian conditions in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Kuwait and Iraq. I got far more than I bargained for. A resurgent Iraqi regime had just crushed uprisings in the south and north of the country brought on by the George H. W. Bush administration’s encouragement of rebellion and promises of support. But the White House quickly backtracked, leaving the insurgents to face the wrath of Saddam Hussein on their own. THE TELLTALE signs of recent conflict were everywhere I went in Iraq. Shops were aflame in the center of Karbala with tank-shell damage to the facade of the adjacent al-Abbas mosque. In Basra, manned antiaircraft batteries had been deployed in the middle of intersections, their guns trained at eye level. Throughout the entire country there was evidence of rocket fire on government buildings, and horrendous conditions in clinics and hospitals, with stories of corpses stacked in hallways and toddlers laid up in cribs, emaciated from lack of drinking water. Downed water-storage tanks and bombed power stations littered the landscape. In the north, overturned tractor-drawn carts of fleeing Kurds sat by the roadside, strafed by helicopter gunships. In the Sulaimaniya government hospital in northeast Kurdistan, a trickle of refugees was returning from the border with Iran, bearing terrifying land-mine injuries. And, in a hint of the vicious reprisals to come in the wake of the Kurdish rebellion against the Baghdad government, I saw a Kurdish insurgent (a pesh merga) being carried into a police station by two Iraqi soldiers, hanging upside down from a pole to which they had tied his hands and legs.1 In Kirkuk we spent the night on relatively neutral ground: the government hospital (we consistently found medical personnel to be apolitical and focused on immediate humanitarian concerns). There, we were fed by a handful of Egyptian workers and got our fill of useful intelligence on the local situation. Later that day, as we returned from Sulaimaniya, we passed through Shorja, one of Kirkuk’s downtown Kurdish neighborhoods. Bulldozers were razing houses, piling concrete upon concrete. The regime was punishing a population for its participation in, and support of, the rebellion (which had lasted a heady few days) by expelling Kurds from the city and demolishing their homes. As I learned on subsequent trips to Iraq, this was more than a “mere” collective reprisal. This was the latest episode in a long-running, ofttimes vicious attempt at ethnically based population transfer. UNTIL RECENTLY, not many people outside the Middle East had heard of this northern Iraqi province, Kirkuk. Once a backwater of the Ottoman Empire far from the cosmopolitan centers of Baghdad and Mosul, for a long time the area presented a blend of ethnic groups—Assyrians and Chaldeans (both small Christian communities), along with Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs—who lived in relative harmony, frequently intermarried and commonly spoke each other’s languages. The discovery of oil in the late 1920s transformed the town into a magnet for an impoverished peasantry, including many Kurds from Erbil, today the capital of Kurdistan, and Sulaimaniya, who flocked to the oil fields during the following three decades. Ethnic conflict quickly came to the surface. The Kurds mounted a series of failed rebellions against the Iraqi government in the 1930s and 1940s, forcing their leaders to flee to the Soviet Union and Iran. And so it went until the 1958 military coup that overthrew the British- backed Hashemite monarchy and installed an Arab nationalist regime, changing the political equation and precipitating decades of fighting. Kurdish insurgents, long in conflict with the central government over autonomous powers, returned from Iranian exile to exploit the vacuum, but soon found themselves, yet again, in opposition to Baghdad’s rule. Their rebellion was crushed in the early 1960s at a terrible cost in Kurdish lives and properties. It was then that Iraq’s republican regimes began to Arabize the areas surrounding the oil fields, not just in Kirkuk, but all along a broad band of territory stretching from Syria in the northwest to Iran’s border east of Baghdad. After the Baath Party came to power in 1968, it pursued accommodation with the Kurdish rebel leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who used the Kurds’ temporary, relative strength to extract a significant concession: the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region. But both sides interpreted the autonomy agreement, and the shape of the autonomous region, differently, with Kirkuk as the core of the problem, and the deal soon fell apart. The Kurds reverted to insurgency and the foundation of the present-day battle was laid fast. The Iraqi regime was loath to surrender control of Kirkuk’s “supergiant” oil field (which contains 15 billion, or 13 percent, of Iraq’s 115 billion barrels of proven reserves) and additional suspected hydrocarbon riches permeating rock formations underfoot. The Kurds’ allies, the shah of Iran and the Ford administration, withdrew their support in 1975 and the insurgency collapsed, but not before solidifying the long-held hope that Kirkuk might one day become part of an independent Kurdistan. A deep-seated enmity between the Kurds and Baghdad soon followed. For years, Saddam Hussein vigorously pursued Arabization by offering monetary inducement for relocation, confiscating property, transferring jobs, deporting people by judicial order, even changing a person’s registered ethnicity by an administrative procedure termed “nationality correction.” In 1988, the final year of the Iran-Iraq war, Arabization took the form of a counterinsurgency campaign called the Anfal that was not limited to, but was most lethal in, Kirkuk’s rural hinterland. In a six-month period, the regime methodically killed tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers, consigned many more to heavily guarded, bare-bones housing estates and erased their villages. 2 What I saw in Kirkuk in April 1991 was the regime’s henchmen taking advantage of the Kurds’ post–Gulf War uprising defeat to further Arabize Kirkuk. Little did I realize then that the bulldozers’ rumble would resonate almost two decades later, magnified and transformed into a political roar. There is no doubt that the long-term policy of Arabization has come back to haunt Iraq, as the Kurds, returning in force after 2003, are seeking not only to regain lost properties and rebuild homes but to attach Kirkuk to their autonomous region, an ambition that Arabs and Turkmen are fiercely resisting. With the province’s status remaining unresolved, the Kirkuk question has become the most divisive and most central issue of Iraqi politics today. I RETURNED to Kirkuk in June 2003, this time for the International Crisis Group, and found the province in disarray. The Kurds had stormed into the city center ahead of American forces, seizing government institutions, and pushing out both Saddam’s agents and the Arabs who had settled on Kurdish properties (many of whom left preemptively, fearing reprisals). This seemed yet another chance for the Kurds to rule Kirkuk, and, if all went according to plan, join it to the Kurdistan region. And thus the Kurds began a long and tenuous struggle to gain control at the local level, but they were up against fierce competition. The Arabs have always known their best hope for dominance lies in keeping Kirkuk under Baghdad’s tight embrace, while the Turkmen, fearing domination by either side, have favored a special status (at least for the city) in which a degree of local autonomy would ensure greater control over Kirkuk’s resources and destiny, with the Turkmen playing a major role as a significant minority group. As in all of Iraq, the politics were complicated, with each ethnicity vying for supremacy as it attempted to work around the American agenda and a broken-down system in Baghdad. American commanders kept everyone in check. Despite strong sympathies toward their Kurdish allies that persist to this day, American officers recognized the area’s ethnic diversity and enormous wealth, and sought to maintain stability by dividing power between local communities. They made their own calculations of each community’s relative demographic and political strength, and when they established a city council in May 2003, they gave six seats each to the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, reserving an additional six for “independents.” In a nudge toward Kurdish interests, five of these six independents were also Kurds, thus granting them a dominant position and allowing them to appoint the governor. All seemed to be going well, at least at first, for the Kurdish cause. This gave rise to Arab complaints that the Americans favored the Kurds, while Kurdish leaders dissembled, declaring that their acceptance of this arrangement constituted a compromise on their part in light of their demographic majority (which no one could verify) and historic rights (which the other communities rejected).3 Eight months later, Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, in the course of “refreshing” local governments to—among many ambitions— make them less dependent on the U.S. military and better representative of Iraqi demographics, created forty-seat provincial councils that replaced the city councils. In Kirkuk, it gave the Kurds thirteen seats, the Arabs twelve, the Turkmen eight and the Christians seven. Because many of Kirkuk’s Christians are inclined toward Kurdish positions and, more importantly, averse to rocking the boat, they tended to vote with the Kurds on major issues. Thus, kept in a perfect twenty-twenty equilibrium, the council could make no significant decisions, inducing a temporary calm. Still, the Kurds tried to improve their position in other areas. They took advantage of American protection and tutelage to strengthen their grip on the province’s administrative and security apparatus, having seized key positions when they entered Kirkuk in 2003. Most importantly, the Kurdistan Regional Government also began to facilitate the return of Kurds displaced during Arabization. It enticed and compelled Kirkuk-origin Kurds residing in the larger Kurdistan region to move to Kirkuk. The government provided financial incentives to enable Kurds to purchase land and start housing construction in the city, while preventing them from buying property inside the larger Kurdistan region. It transferred civil servants to new jobs in the area and forced parents to register their newborns there. The absence of an impartial mechanism to oversee these returning Kirkukis, of course, led to chronic Arab and Turkmen doubts that the arriving Kurds actually had roots there. They suspected instead that the settlers were from Erbil and Sulaimaniya, or even Iran, Syria and Turkey. What was going on, they said, was Kurdification, a reverse ethnic cleansing—even if less violent than Arabization in its enforcement. In Kirkuk’s January 2005 provincial elections, the Kurds were on top once again, cementing their local power thanks in part to low turnout among Arabs and Turkmen (who either rejected the exercise or were deterred by threats of insurgent violence). The Kurds’ Kirkuk Brotherhood list, an electoral slate of allied political candidates which comprised a handful of token Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, took twenty-six of forty-one seats on the new council, while the Arab parties won nine and the Turkmen parties six. Using their electoral strength, the Brotherhood list appointed both the governor and council president, leaving the deputy-governor position for an Arab or Turkmen. Alas, the representatives from each group could not agree on a suitable candidate, thus leaving the post vacant. Not long after, the Arab and Turkmen council members, complaining of the use of Kurdish in official proceedings and other perceived wrongs, launched a boycott of the provincial government that was to last until 2008. In Kirkuk, it seemed that the Kurds were gaining control. But during all this working of the system at the local level, something quite different was afoot in Baghdad, setting the stage for a protracted stalemate. KURDISH LEADERS never made a secret of their goal to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region. To cement their primacy over the province, the Kurds needed to amend the Iraqi legal and constitutional order to recognize their special rights to Kirkuk. Their success at doing so, however, has been decidedly mixed. Kurdish leaders gained a partial victory in the form of the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), a document intended to serve as Iraq’s interim constitution while the country set up a sovereign government. Article 58 of the TAL officially created a process to reverse Kirkuk’s Arabization, including through property restitution and compensation, the cancellation of agricultural decrees restricting Kurdish activity, the voluntary departure of those settled in Kirkuk by the previous regime and the return of those displaced (both with compensation), and the restoration of Kirkuk’s pre-1968 administrative boundaries, which would make it easier to eventually incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region. The combination of these steps, if fully implemented, would almost certainly produce a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk province. In practice, however, the TAL made no mention of a referendum that would determine the ultimate status of Kirkuk, leaving this task to the drafters of the permanent constitution. And bottom line, no matter the number of “Kirkukis” returning to the area, without a decree as to the status of the province, it remains disputed and, de facto, a province directly under Baghdad’s control. In a further setback to the Kurds, the TAL also included Article 53 (c), which barred Baghdad and Kirkuk from forming autonomous regions separate from the national government, in effect giving these two provinces a special status. As such, when the Iraqis began to draft their new constitution in 2005, the Kurds had a legal mandate to reverse Arabization, but still had no specific claim to the most valuable of assets—Kirkuk. The 2005 constitution could have reversed this situation and given the Kurds a shot at gaining full legal control over the oil-rich province. Approved by 80 percent of votes cast nationwide in October 2005, the constitution served as the Kurds’ biggest political triumph. Article 143 eliminated the TAL’s stipulation that Kirkuk could not form a regional entity separate from the central government. And Article 140 laid out a process to resolve the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories (which it left undefined) through a census and a popular referendum (whose nature it failed to specify) by December 31, 2007. Kurdish leaders who drafted this and several other key articles with the help of Western consultants such as Peter Galbraith (who has since come under criticism for his involvement in the process)4 calculated that a referendum based on a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk achieved via de-Arabization would place the province irrevocably inside the Kurdistan region. So, through all these ups and downs, it looked as if the Kurds were set to finally achieve control of Kirkuk through perfectly legal means. But, as in much of Iraqi politics, nothing is quite so simple. Although the constitution is written in their favor, the Kurds have proved incapable of inducing the federal government to implement it. Two years after the deadline set in Article 140, Baghdad has yet to conduct a census and hold a referendum on Kirkuk. The government’s foot-dragging reinforces the notion that Kirkuk is unique and deserving of special treatment—but that doesn’t make it a part of the Kurdish region proper. Making matters even worse for the Kurds, many in Iraq, including the first constitutionally elected prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, have questioned the constitution’s legitimacy. The way in which the document was drafted behind closed doors, lacking significant popular input and in the absence of elected Sunni Arab representatives, passed by a pliant parliament and subsequently endorsed by a mostly passive electorate (Shia religious leaders exhorted their flock to embrace the document) has done little to improve its credibility. Controversies swirl around a number of its provisions. Non-Kurds are especially irked by that Article 140—meaning that it may be impossible to implement. Nonetheless, the Kurds continue to argue that their quest for Kirkuk has historical and emotional bases, and represents a thirst for justice after the terrible wrongs committed by Iraq’s republican regimes, especially that of Saddam Hussein. One must remember, the Kirkuk question cannot be separated from the broader Kurdish aspiration for independence, and it can hardly be considered a coincidence that the Kurds’ fervor over the disputed territories increases the closer one gets to Kirkuk. Just as Saddam’s regime used Arabization as a tool to retain its grip on the province and thus preserve Iraq’s economic strength and territorial unity, so the Kurds see Kirkuk’s wealth as the economic basis for a bid—currently submerged but in preparation—for independence sometime in the future. Kurdish leaders realize full well that none of their powerful neighbors, be it Iran, Turkey or Syria, would tolerate an independent Kurdistan, given their own Kurdish populations, and that even if the Kurds were somehow to achieve statehood, theirs would be an entity as hopelessly landlocked as it is today. With Kirkuk, however, such a statelet would have significantly more leverage in its external dealings, and it holds out the hope of a more satisfying arrangement once regional dynamics change. In June 2007, a Kurdish leader asked me whether the Bush administration would attack Iran in its waning months. When I offered him a tentative “no,” he responded with deep disappointment. In his view, a U.S. war with Iran would change the political equation in the region, possibly allowing for a shift in boundaries, raising the Kurds’ chances of success, just as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had done. It is this sort of border- changing event the Kurds are waiting, and preparing, for. A FREQUENT visitor to Kirkuk since 2003, I have built contacts with political leaders of all the parties that claim to represent the four communities living in the province, as well as journalists, intellectuals and other members of civil society. I have heard every conflicting historical and psychological narrative that keeps this profoundly unhappy place a cauldron of unrest. If the Kurds cite demographic numbers to support their case, Arabs and Turkmen present their own; in the absence of a census, none can be considered reliable. Likewise, if the Kurds invoke historical legacy, the Turkmen claim original dominance under the Ottomans who brought them to the region, while the Christians go so far as to declare themselves the descendants of the ancient Assyrians, under whose rule Kirkuk, then named Arrapha, was a small trading center; to both, the Kurds are late interlopers. Moreover, when the Kurds denounce Arabization, Arabs say that while the Baath regime did remove Kurds, many Arabs came to Kirkuk simply because they were attracted by the growing oil industry, as would occur in any economy even without state inducements (and much in the same vein as earlier Kurdish settlement in Kirkuk). Though the Kurds say this is not about oil, the others say of course it is only about oil, and that the Kurds are being disingenuous. All sides present documents that they claim support their narrative, denouncing their rivals’ evidence as fraud. In Kirkuk itself, everything is on hold. In governance, there is gridlock. The economy is at a near standstill, with oil production from a large but damaged oil field far below its pre-2003 performance, let alone its potential. And Western oil companies are hesitant to invest as long as the status of the territory in which the black gold lies remains unsettled. Although security has been relatively stable under Kurdish control, grievances continue to mount, especially among Arabs, who have long found themselves both at the forefront of the insurgency and at the receiving end of a joint U.S.-Kurdish antiterrorism campaign. Local leaders, seeing no solution to their predicament, look to outside parties to bring solace, fearing that their rivals’ patrons will prevail even as they loudly decry external interference in Kirkuk’s affairs. Each major group has its own promoter and protector, but none of these relationships is comfortable. Kirkuk’s Arab politicians, who are Sunnis, look to Baghdad for support but see a Shia-Islamist-led government for which they harbor an innate distrust, even if Maliki shares their position on Kirkuk. For their part, the Kurds count on the United States to enable their acquisition of Kirkuk, but perceived betrayals in 1975 (when the Ford administration withdrew its support from Mullah Mustafa) and 1991 (when President George H. W. Bush allowed Saddam to crush post–Gulf War rebellions with helicopter gunships) have made them wary of U.S. intentions in a region where they suspect the bottom line will be Washington’s relations with states such as Iraq and Turkey, not nonstate actors such as themselves. As for Turkmen, the Shia Islamists among them have turned their gaze toward Baghdad, while many Sunni and secular Turkmen appear to favor a scenario in which Turkey would step in, but only as a last resort. Maliki’s remarkable rise from a weak compromise prime minister in 2006 to a leader of considerable power and stature today can be attributed in part to his use of the Kirkuk issue to burnish his credentials among Iraq’s majority Arabs. He sent troops to push Kurdish pesh merga and security agents out of mixed-population towns in Diyala, a province to the northeast of Baghdad that borders Kurdistan, in August 2008. He then began building up the Iraqi army’s presence in Kirkuk, especially near the oil fields. Soon, army units ventured out on probing missions in majority-Kurdish areas to show the flag, acts that angered and alarmed the Kurds but that many other Iraqis received with satisfaction. Moreover, as the process to resolve Kirkuk’s status by census and referendum has ground to a halt, the Kirkuk question has vaulted to the top of the list of factors that could undermine the larger effort to stabilize Iraq. Once a sideshow in the endeavor to rebuild the country, it has now begun to contaminate politics. KIRKUK HAS turned into a political hot spot and an elections spoiler. In July 2008, lawmakers passed a draft bill on provincial elections, which were tentatively scheduled to take place less than three months later. It contained a clause on Kirkuk, however, that so angered Kurdish parliamentarians that they boycotted the vote; the law subsequently triggered a veto by the presidency council, headed by a Kurd, Jalal Talabani. It took two months to hammer out an amendment that all sides could live with. The new provision postponed elections in Kirkuk province until after a parliamentary committee could investigate and make recommendations about power sharing, the voter registry and property disputes in Kirkuk. Since the committee proved incapable of completing its task, Kirkukis are still waiting for those elections. Kirkuk’s role as an election spoiler is not only limited to local politics. Disputes over its status are also curbing Iraq’s ability to function as a democratic state. In October 2009, lawmakers were supposed to pass a law establishing a system for parliamentary elections due to be held in January 2010. But the parliament could not agree on a bill, forcing Iraq to resort to the laws governing the previous elections of December 2005—and amending them only where absolutely necessary. This, too, proved an almost-insurmountable challenge. And Kirkuk was at the heart of the matter. Legislators sparred over which voter roll would be used in the province. Would it be the one updated by the Iraqi High Electoral Commission as recently as September 2009, which took into account all the Kurds who had entered Kirkuk on the claim they had been expelled before 2003? Or the one created in 2004, before the Kurds started arriving in big numbers? Kurdish leaders favored the former option; Arab and Turkmen politicians from Kirkuk, the latter. Both sides feared that a decision on who gained the right to vote in Kirkuk would set a dangerous precedent that would prejudge the outcome of provincial elections and an eventual referendum on the province’s status. That is because there is a prevailing perception in Iraq that Kurds will vote for Kurdish candidates, Arabs for Arabs, Turkmen for Turkmen and so on, and that the same will of course be true in Kirkuk. In the end, the 2009 voter registry ruled the day and the law was passed, but loopholes remain. Challenges of election results are allowed in provinces where annual population growth has exceeded 5 percent—no surprise, as has happened in Kirkuk. And those election results cannot be used as a precedent for changing current political or administrative arrangements; in other words, they will not have an impact on the status of Kirkuk. For all their efforts, Iraqi lawmakers only managed to kick the Kirkuki can further down the road. And even that paltry legislative triumph has been short-lived. Tariq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq’s vice presidents, indicated he would not join his colleagues on the presidential council to sign the bill into law. Political crisis ensued. And although Hashemi’s veto had little to do with Kirkuk, the legislative wrangling over the province’s representation greatly complicated the bill’s initial parliamentary passage. So powerful is the Kirkuk issue, it has managed to delay national elections. AND EVEN once Iraqis finally do go to the polls, the next opportunity for trouble is not far off. This time Kirkuk could turn out to be an even-bigger spoiler. The winners will set about cobbling together a governing coalition. Given the fragmented nature of Iraq’s political landscape, however, this will be a complicated task that could take months. The biggest winner may not gain more than a quarter of the vote —respectable in any democracy perhaps but a dramatic departure from the 2005 elections, when the Shia Islamist alliance fell only ten seats short of an absolute majority. Prolonged postelection bickering is likely even though the Kurds will probably not reprise the role as kingmakers of Iraqi politics that they had in 2005 and 2006. The Kurds’ main electoral list, the Kurdistani Alliance bloc, will still play a major role in light of its proven ability to get out the vote in Kurdish areas. The bloc’s principal condition for joining a new government will be a sworn commitment by its governing partners to make concessions on Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have been coy about what demands they will make, but if previous experiences are anything to go by, the focus will be on concrete steps that would facilitate Kirkuk’s incorporation into the Kurdistan region. These could include a firm date for a Kirkuk referendum, or a date for provincial elections in Kirkuk using the updated voter registry, or Baghdad’s consent to pay oil companies that signed contracts with the Kurdistan Regional Government, including for fields located in disputed territories. It is doubtful, however, that political leaders would be willing or able to make any compromise on Kirkuk in the midst of resurgent Iraqi nationalism. THE OBAMA administration has slowly, though not explicitly, begun to move its support behind some sort of special status for Kirkuk, a choice that would dissatisfy virtually everyone but seems the only way to keep the peace. The White House has started to focus energies on finding a way out of the Kirkuk conundrum ahead of the announced U.S. troop withdrawal, to be completed by the end of 2011. The shift from the Bush administration’s support of Article 140 was moved along by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) which launched an investigation into the Kirkuk question after the 2007 referendum deadline was missed. The ensuing report supported neither Kirkuk as part of the Kurdistan region nor as a province directly under Baghdad’s rule. Just as importantly, UNAMI rejected the notion of a referendum based on an ethnic vote, which it referred to as a “hostile referendum” that could only augur war. Instead it advocated negotiations that would produce a compromise agreement that then would need to be ratified by Kirkuki voters in what it called a confirmatory referendum. Such a compromise would most likely entail some kind of special status which would, for example, allow both Iraq’s central government and the Kurdish government to have significant influence in the province and create a power-sharing arrangement inside Kirkuk for an interim period until Iraqi leaders reach a consensus on final status. No surprise, the UNAMI report deeply displeased Kurdish leaders. But nevertheless, given the report’s endorsement by their only ally, the United States, they couldn’t possibly reject its findings outright. The Maliki government also gave it the nod. Of course, little progress has been made since, but in Iraq, the fact that Baghdad and Erbil are still talking is seen as a blessing all the same. The reason the shift in U.S. policy hasn’t yet been turned into action is because the Obama administration doesn’t want to break the bad news to Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, lest the Kurds boycott the parliamentary elections and upset the U.S. withdrawal timetable. Nor has it wanted to put pressure on the Maliki government to make painful concessions—a special status is clearly not Maliki’s preferred outcome—just as it is heading into an election. UN and U.S. diplomats have suggested, though, that they intend to tackle the Kirkuk question in earnest just as soon as the winners are known and well before a new government is formed. Meanwhile, they are considering a number of steps that would bring the sides closer together—anchoring in law the constitutional principle (to which all sides appear to agree) that revenues from oil sales should be distributed fairly across Iraq’s population, and the integration of Kurdish regional guards into the federal army—before moving on to address Kirkuk’s disposition. They hope that in effecting such steps, they can also facilitate the creation of a coalition government by removing the blockage Kirkuk would otherwise cause. FRUSTRATED FOR over eighty years in their quest for independence, with Saddam’s ouster, the Kurds saw a chance to make serious headway, focusing their energies on Kirkuk. Their window of opportunity, opened in 1991 and widened in 2003, now appears to be closing. The outcome is grim. Attempts to reverse Kurdish gains will be destabilizing. The same goes for any further Kurdish attempt to seize full control of Kirkuk. The only sensible way forward is for all communities to acknowledge the intrinsic legitimacy of each other’s narratives and to sit down and work out a deal. Such a deal could not be limited to Kirkuk; it would have to address the related questions of how the oil economy should be managed and revenues shared, and how power should be divided between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq.5 Kurdish leaders will have to decide what they value most: their region’s long-term security, with a consensually defined and internationally guaranteed boundary, or that region’s expansion in a manner that can only lead to endemic strife. The goal for all stakeholders should be to reach a long-term arrangement that would preserve Kirkuk’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity; distribute power equitably between its main components; encourage investment in its oil and gas fields; restart its economy; protect the rights of all its denizens and their properties, regardless of their provenance; and leave open a future review of Kirkuk’s status if conditions warrant it. The people of Kirkuk, largely ignored and forgotten in the political battles between Baghdad and Erbil, deserve no less. And only a peaceful settlement of Kirkuk’s status holds the promise of keeping Iraq together and afloat following the American military’s departure. Joost R. Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. 1 For my accounts of my journey to postwar Iraq, see “Bomb Now, Die Later,” Mother Jones (July/August 1991); and “Assessing the Damage in Iraq,” Journal of Palestine Studies (Summer 1991). 2 See Human Rights Watch, Iraq’s Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (New Haven, ct: Yale University Press, 1995); an earlier version is available at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/1993/07/01/genocide-iraq . 3 The International Crisis Group has analyzed developments in Kirkuk from 2003 onward. Its reports are available at http://www.crisisgroup.org.
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