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Iraq: Turkey Keeps Nervous Eye On Kirkuk

  • Sumedha Senanayake --> Iraqi Turkomans protesting federalism in Kirkuk in October 2006 (epa) January 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish officials have recently voiced their concerns over the fate of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Turkey fears that if the Iraqi Kurds annex Kirkuk into their autonomous region, they will eventually want to carve out an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and thus stoke separatist desires in Turkey's own sizable Kurdish population.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution calls for a three-step process to be implemented to reverse the "Arabization" policies of the regime of former President Saddam Hussein to expel and/or displace non-Arabs in the area around Kirkuk. The article also stipulates that once the province has been "normalized," a census is to take place, followed by a referendum, which is to be carried out sometime in 2007 to determine whether the city and its environs will join the Kurdish region.

Kirkuk Conference Raises Tensions

On January 16, a two-day symposium titled "Kirkuk 2007," sponsored by the Turkish Global Strategy Institute, ended in Ankara with a final declaration calling for "the suspension of the referendum until the Iraqi Constitution is reviewed," the Ankara Anatolia news agency reported the same day.

The aim of the symposium was to discuss the future of Kirkuk with the participation of Iraqi Sunni, Shi'ite, Turkoman, Christian, and Assyrian groups. However, no representatives of Iraqi Kurdish groups were invited; the conference's organizers said the Kurds were asked to submit their views in writing.

Iraq's Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, have voiced fears that tensions would spill over if the Kurds took control of Kirkuk. The leader of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Sadettin Ergec, said on January 15 at the conference that due to the complex ethnic and religious makeup of Kirkuk, the referendum should be cancelled and the province be placed under the control of the federal government, Ankara Anatolia reported the same day.

"Kirkuk is not a normal province. Rather, it is Iraq's national asset. Therefore, all the Iraqis should have a say in its future and the city," Ergec said.

Several Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament issued a joint statement denouncing the conference, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 17. "We condemn this interference in Iraqi affairs by the Turkish government [and] upon the Iraqi government and Foreign Ministry to take a decisive stance to stop this interference, and to threaten to cut political and economic relations with Turkey should Turkey continue its interference," the statement read.

Threat Of Military Intervention

The confrontational rhetoric from Turkish officials has been amplified in recent weeks as the Kirkuk referendum approaches. During a session of parliament on January 15, Turhan Comez, a leading member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), warned that the Kirkuk referendum may lead to ethnic clashes in the city, which could force Ankara to intervene, "The New Anatolian" reported the same day.

Click map to enlarge"Turkey should announce that it will not recognize the results of a referendum on the future of Kirkuk under these conditions. And we should also announce that we are going to intervene if civil war erupts in Kirkuk," Comez said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on January 9, "Turkey cannot stand idly by, watching the efforts to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk," the Cihan news agency reported on January 10. Erdogan's statement reflects a longstanding accusation by Turkey that Iraq's Kurds have been drastically altering the demographics of Kirkuk in an attempt to influence the outcome of the upcoming referendum in their favor.

Indeed, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 15 that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) had obtained information that since 2003 "an estimated 600,000 ethnic Kurdish Iraqi citizens have been moved to Kirkuk from different areas in northern Iraq and have subsequently been registered to vote in elections."

Moreover, the Turkish daily "Ortadogu" reported on January 17 that 240,000 Turkish troops deployed last March along the Iranian and Iraqi borders are awaiting orders to enter northern Iraq to go after Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters and to protect the Iraqi Turkoman population.

Crossing The Border

It is unclear whether Turkey would go so far as sending troops into northern Iraq if the Kurds continue with their drive to annex Kirkuk. Both the ruling AKP and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have on separate occasions asked for a closed-door session of parliament to discuss the Kirkuk situation. The session is to take place on January 23.

CHP leader Deniz Baykal indicated that an order to send troops to northern Iraq would be issued if the situation "warranted" it, "Milliyet" reported on January 16.

Iraqi Kurdish regional parliament speaker Adnan Mufti on January 19 denounced the upcoming session, calling it an attempt by Turkey to sow chaos in Iraq, Salah al-Din Kurdistan Satellite television reported the same day.

"I believe that the [Turkish] parliament's session is unnecessary. Now, since the session has become a fact, I hope that they will discuss the realities," he said.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns moved to clarify the situation when he stressed on January 18 after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that the issue of Kirkuk was a matter for the "Iraqis, since they are sovereign in their country." However, as the referendum nears, tensions are bound to increase and Turkey will continue to watch northern Iraq anxiously.
Sharing Iraq's Oil

The pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey is one of Iraq's main oil-export lifelines (epa file photo)

THE FUTURE OF THE ECONOMY. The uneven distribution of Iraq's oil resources has long been a source of tension among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the tangled quest to find an equitable way to share oil revenues has been a major stumbling block on the road to national unity.


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