The Middle East Channel

Negotiating Kirkuk

As the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq draws nearer, concerns about conflict along the trigger line in the oil-rich, ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk have increased. Many worry that the absence of American-led joint patrols will create a security vacuum that encourages communal violence and terrorism. Others link the withdrawal to what they call ‘democratic negligence,' arguing for greater international efforts to resolve ethnic tensions in Kirkuk before the drawdown. These concerns are not unfounded; however, aside from a limited, Baghdad-approved U.S. military presence, the Kirkuk issue should be left for Iraqis to resolve. New realities in post-Saddam Iraq have increased the costs for everyone of a protracted Kirkuk conflict while creating opportunities for deal-making between Baghdad and Arbil. 

Viewed from an ethnic and sectarian lens, the prospects of a post-withdrawal Kirkuk appear dismal. Since the creation of the federal Iraqi state in 2005, Arab-Kurdish relations in Kirkuk city have become openly strained. The Iraqi government has failed to provide security and services to Kirkuk residents while refusing to implement key articles of the constitution regarding Kirkuk's territorial boundaries and jurisdiction. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has fueled tensions by resettling Kurdish populations to Kirkuk, controlling the provincial council, and mobilizing its militia in the city center. Left unchecked, these trends could reinforce and entrench local and national power struggles.

Yet, the Kirkuk problem today is not the same one it was five years ago. Alongside tensions over territory and identity, it has become intertwined with energy demands, petroleum-based development and commercial interests that require security and inter-regional concessions. With plans to quadruple the country's oil revenues over the next five years, the central government needs a relatively stable Kirkuk -- and Iraq -- to continue exporting approximately 700,000 bpd of crude oil via the strategic pipeline that runs through the province northward to Turkish ports. The effort to secure the Kirkuk line comes at a time when the country's infrastructure needs repair, more expansive export routes are unavailable, attacks on pipelines are prevalent, and Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz to shipping.

The KRG has even more at stake in maintaining a stable Kirkuk and positive relations with Baghdad. No longer victims of Saddam Hussein or a repressive central government, the Kurds have gained large freedoms to develop their northern region within the federal Iraqi state. With multi-million dollar contracts with international companies to honor, the KRG needs a stable region to assure potential investors that it is still the "other Iraq."  Such stability has become particularly important as Kurdish leaders try to prevent the ongoing unrest in their region from spilling-over into Kirkuk and from being fuelled by tensions in Kirkuk.

Kurdish officials have economic incentives to negotiate Kirkuk, at least in the short and medium term. Despite the large autonomy it has realized since 2005, the KRG does not have the political authority to export its crude without Baghdad's approval. The dozens of lucrative contracts it has signed with international oil companies still remain in legal limbo, even if Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised Kurdish leaders he would recognize the contracts and has made an initial cost payment (although not profits) to Arbil. Further, the Kurdistan region depends upon the central government for nearly all its revenues -- some U.S. $10 billion dollars in 2010. Protracted conflict with Baghdad over Kirkuk could jeopardize a critically important source of funds for the KRG, cause financial loss for leading Kurdish elites and their associated parties, and undermine the northern region's international business credibility.

Keeping the peace in Kirkuk is also important to the government of Turkey, a strategic partner of both Baghdad and Arbil. In addition to safeguarding Turcoman rights, Turkey has significant vested commercial interests in its southern neighbor. The recent visit to Iraq by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his accompanying business delegation underlined the importance of Iraq and the Kurdistan region to Turkey. Last year, bilateral trade was valued at U.S. $7.5 million, most of which passed through or remained in the Kurdish transit zone. Turkey expects this amount to increase to $10 billion in 2011. With such high financial and political stakes, it is unlikely that Kurdish president Mas'ud Barzani would antagonize Turkey by pressing for an immediate territorial negotiation of Kirkuk, despite public assurances that it is an essential part of Kurdish identity.

These realities have implications for U.S. policy. Even if Baghdad extends the Status of Forces Agreement, a U.S. military presence should not be used to cushion Iraqis from reaching political decisions on Kirkuk or other sensitive issues. Nor should the United States or international organizations be engaged in engineering a census or staging provincial council elections in Kirkuk. Such measures are more likely to stir ethnic tensions than alleviate them, particularly since they would appear to protect the interests of the Kurds and not the larger Iraqi populations.

This policy option certainly lacks the confidence-building measures and milestones that institution builders would like to set for Iraq. It also runs the risk of instability and more political bottlenecks in Baghdad and Arbil. Yet, because the Kirkuk problem lies outside the province and in regional capitals, and because intra-communal relations in Iraq extend beyond identity politics, concessions among Arabs, Turcoman and Kurds have a chance of being made as part of other pressing socio-economic demands. It is only when Iraqi leaders tire of conflict and its associated losses that they can sit down and bargain with each other. The initial outcomes may appear politically unpalatable; however, normalization of Kirkuk will have a better chance of being realized as a by-product of internal disputes and deal-making than as part of artificial and externally-imposed political exercises.

Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), National Defense University and author of The Kurdish-Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010). The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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