What Do They Want? Kirkuk! When Do They Want It? Now!

The Kurds play a dangerous game of brinksmanship.

Masoud Barzani

BANI SLAWA, Iraq—A ramshackle village of trash-strewn alleyways crisscrossed by makeshift power lines and awnings made of empty rice sacks, this “collective town” in northern Iraq was built in 1998 to house Kurds kicked out of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein during his infamous Anfal campaign. The residents of Bani Slawa are counting the days until they can leave this squalor and return to their ancestral homes in Kirkuk. And with Iraq’s new constitution setting a definitive timeline to deal with that contested city by year’s end, many of them have already begun packing up their meager belongings and hitting the road. Thousands have even moved into a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Kirkuk. “We have made up our minds to go back,” says 73-year-old Mam Hamid Bizam, who fled from Kirkuk to Bani Slawa in 1988 after his family was killed by Baathists. “Kirkuk is ours.”

Last month should have brought Bizam and his neighbors one step closer to Kirkuk: a census of the city’s residents scheduled for July 31, the last benchmark before a referendum on Kirkuk’s status in November, as laid out in the constitution’s Article 140. The census’s postponement, which came without any explanation from the central government, marks a significant escalation in the already explosive tensions surrounding the Kirkuk question. “There is procrastination [by the government], and if this issue is not resolved, all options are open,” warned Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, which administers the semiautonomous Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. “If Clause 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war.”

Barzani’s speech is just the latest bellicose pronouncement from the Kurdish government. One of the main victims of Saddam Hussein’s Arabization efforts, Kirkuk has come to symbolize the injustice the Kurds suffered at his hands—and its annexation to the KRG the only way to remedy it. Perhaps more significant are Kirkuk’s rich oil fields—estimated to contain 10 billion barrels—which are the key to the economic self-sufficiency essential for Kurdish aspirations to an independent state.

The problem is that Kirkuk contains a significant minority population who do not wish to come under Kurdish control, fearing they’d be treated as second-class citizens. The city’s Arab community, mostly Shiite, would rather cast their lot with Baghdad, which looks to be controlled by a Shiite coalition for the foreseeable future. The other sizable community, the ethnic Turkmen, has been advocating for special status for Kirkuk, independent from the Kurds and the central government. “The minorities in Kirkuk hear Kurdish politicians on TV and on the radio, read their words in the newspaper, and they are petrified of them,” says a Kurdistan-based worker for the National Democratic Institute. “They would rather fight than come under Kurdish control.”

This instability in Kirkuk has been compounded by Iraq’s neighbors, who worry that an independent Kurdish state would encourage their own Kurdish populations to press for more rights. The thousands of Turkish troops amassed at Iraq’s border are, in part, meant to send a clear message to the Kurds about Turkey’s stake in the Kirkuk issue; a 2003 threat by Ankara to invade Iraq if the city is annexed is being taken very seriously these days. Turkey and Syria could also bankrupt the Kurdish region in a matter of weeks by closing down their borders, and—as many Kurds in Iraq fear—they could ramp up  their support for radical groups in Kirkuk that are behind much of the recent instability.

Al-Qaida and its ilk are capitalizing on this volatility to bring their brand of relentless suicide bombing and explosions to the previously peaceful Kurdish region. Violence in Kirkuk has escalated exponentially as the date for the referendum draws closer—moving from the city’s ethnic enclaves to include even the Kurdish neighborhoods. Last month, Kirkuk was rocked by its deadliest attack since the 2003 invasion, with 85 killed and 180 wounded by a truck bomb. A recent report by the International Crisis Group said, “Today Kirkuk resembles Baghdad in miniature.”

If you ask Kamal Kirkuki, the deputy speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament (one of the components of the KRG), to delay the referendum in order to resolve these issues first, he will pull out his laptop and show you a series of videos: footage of Kurds being beaten to death and thrown off tall buildings by Saddam’s security forces, blood splashing the camera as their tongues are sliced out, piercing screams of pain as their limbs are chopped off one by one. “If we postpone the referendum,” he says, slamming shut the laptop, “this is what we will get.”

It’s a fatalistic attitude that Kurds have honed over centuries of mistreatment and abuse. They see this referendum as a unique opportunity to get Kirkuk by capitalizing on their relative strength within the central government. As they see it, a postponement could allow Kirkuk to slip through their fingers forever. The 2006 Iraq Study Group, which brought thousands to the streets of Kurdistan to protest its suggestion that the referendum should be delayed, only heightened this sense of paranoia.

“People have been telling us for years to wait for our rights—’Later, later, later’—and all we get are mass graves and chemical smoke,” Kirkuki says. “We’re not waiting anymore.”

The Kurds are barreling toward a referendum they are sure to win even though a hasty resolution of Kirkuk’s status promises to bring even more violence. They have done little to reassure Kirkuk’s minority populations that the KRG would protect their rights—by, for example, strengthening minority provisions in the draft of the Kurdish Constitution and appointing ethnic leaders to senior KRG positions. Instead, Kurdish nationalist rhetoric has become more aggressive. Kurdish politicians have made little effort at outreach to these communities, preferring to deal with the small segments that support annexation rather than the significant portions that don’t.

The Kurdish narrative of victimhood prevents many of them from admitting that they may be the aggressors in this situation. But the KRG could get more than they bargain for by taking such a hard line on the Kirkuk issue and recklessly raising hopes among Kirkuk’s displaced Kurds like those in Bani Slawa.

“Imagine if someone took your house, stole your property, killed your sons, raped your wife, kidnapped your daughter, and then the government told you to just live peacefully among them as their neighbors,” Kirkuki says. “If the Kurds don’t get Kirkuk, thousands will take revenge.”

It doesn’t seem that their rhetoric will soften anytime soon, since the Kirkuk issue has become a key tool for the two warring Kurdish parties to prove their nationalist credentials. “The Kurds will never relinquish or bargain over Kirkuk,” Barzani reiterated after the postponed census. The hasty constitutional process was reaffirmed last week as the two Kurdish parties joined the two Shiite parties in renewing their support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the condition that he commit to a “speedy completion of the stages of application of Article 140 of the constitution … and the attempt to adhere to the timetable … to the settlement of matters in Kirkuk.”

But by raising expectations on all sides, Kurdish politicians have boxed themselves into a corner, risking ethnic violence in Kirkuk and Turkish retaliation if the referendum is pushed through by the November deadline, Kurdish backlash if it isn’t.

“The Kurds are now anxiously awaiting the implementation of 140 by the end of the year,” says Nouri Talabany, an independent Kurdish MP from Kirkuk and chair of the Kurdish electoral commission. “If nothing is done for them soon, they will become hopeless, and that is dangerous.”

It is a precarious game of brinksmanship in which the Kurds will lose no matter the outcome. The central government in Baghdad can help allay Kurdish concerns by helping them to develop oil fields in territory already under KRG control. But a sustainable solution to the Kirkuk issue will come only from genuine Kurdish efforts to build confidence among the city’s minority communities—a lengthy process that will require postponing the referendum. Their leaders must accept that sacrificing a swift victory in the short term is the only way to prevent Kirkuk from becoming the next flashpoint in Iraq’s bloody civil war.