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The Kirkuk ‘powder keg’ 1 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.

International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ian Bremmer and Wolfango Piccoli

For the moment, life is good for Iraqi Kurds. The northern Iraqi provinces that make up the Kurdish Autonomous Region have escaped much of the violence plaguing Baghdad. The Kurdish regional government has cut deals with foreign energy companies to exploit the area’s oil wealth. A construction boom is well under way in the cities of Irbil and Suleymaniye. Trade with Turkey is growing.

But dark clouds are visible on the horizon. To win Kurdish support for approval of the new Iraqi Constitution in 2005, a provision was added to the document that allows the citizens of oil- rich Kirkuk to vote in a referendum this year on whether the city will continue to be governed from Baghdad or come under the jurisdiction of the local Kurdish government. A vote to bring Kirkuk under Kurdish control threatens to draw Kurds directly into the violence roiling other parts of Iraq.

Across the Kurdish provinces, dreams of independence are alive and well. Central to those dreams is annexation of Kirkuk, a city of 700,000 people, most of them Kurds. A referendum would almost certainly pass control of the city to the local Kurdish government.

Bomb attacks have driven an unknown number of Shiite and other minorities from the city. And, on Feb. 4, the so-called Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk decreed that the thousands of (mostly Shiite) Arab families who came to Kirkuk from Iraq after Saddam Hussein came to power in 1968 will reportedly receive financial compensation for returning to their towns of origin. Kurdish officials say this move will right the wrongs visited on the city during Saddam’s « Arabization » campaign in the 1980s and 1990s.

Demonstrations by Kirkuk’s non- Kurds, who fear they will lose their rights under Kurdish control, have intensified. Sunnis and Shiites elsewhere in Iraq fear that moves by the Kurdish regional government to absorb Kirkuk will cost them access to the oil revenues it will generate.

Anxiety over the referendum is not limited to Iraq. In the United States, the final report of the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressmen Lee Hamilton, described Kirkuk as a « powder keg » and recommended that the vote be postponed. The report drew a sharp rebuke from Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who said that Baker deserves blame for the American decision in 1991 not to support a Kurdish uprising against Saddam and cannot be trusted.

But the Kurds’ more immediate worry lies just across the border. Turkey fears that if the Iraqi Kurds do gain control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region would have the economic power to move toward full independence. Ankara, which fears that Kurdish self-reliance may stoke separatism among Turkey’s own large Kurdish population, also has called for a delay in the vote.

While Ankara is unlikely to intervene militarily, it may resort to commercial pressure on the Kurdish regional government. In 2006 alone, Turkey’s exports to the Kurdish government, particularly fuel, building materials and food, totaled around $5 billion. More than 600 Turkish companies are currently operating in northern Iraq.

Turkey also provides crucial land routes for Kirkuk’s oil — when the pipeline, which has been repeatedly sabotaged by the insurgents, is operational. Moreover, Turkey’s represents the most direct gateway to northern Iraq for European markets. By closing the border, Turkey can effectively disrupt northern Iraq’s economic well being.

There is, however, the possibility that rogue elements close to nationalist circles and the Turkish military may carry out subversive activities and sabotage in northern Iraq in order to increase ethnic tension ahead of the referendum.

In short, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders have a problem. They know that to hold the referendum is to provoke Shiites, Sunnis and the Turkish government. Few Kurdish leaders who oppose a vote are popular enough to count on unconditional backing from voters, a clear majority of whom want Kirkuk under Kurdish regional government control. Though support for the referendum is politically expedient, it may reap the whirlwind.

Virtually every Kurdish leader understands that the surest way to protect the relative stability and prosperity the Kurdish region of Iraq has gained is to postpone the vote. But none of them wants to pay the political price.

For the moment, Kurdish officials continue to insist publicly that it is postponement of the referendum, not the vote itself, that will provoke bloodshed. Plans for the referendum are moving forward. Local officials say they will conduct a census this summer to prepare for it.

Shiites, Sunnis, Turks, and even the Americans may raise pressure for postponement. But that pressure could backfire and fuel Kurdish determination to seize their prize.

Perhaps Kurdish officials can find a way to postpone the vote, but, as in Iraq, provocative acts in Kirkuk may generate a destructive momentum that no one can contain.


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