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Kirkuk Could be Engulfed by Sectarian Violence, Experts Say

(Washington, DC--August 17, 2006) There is a "looming" ethnic and sectarian crisis in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, two Iraq experts told a RFE/RL audience this week. But as escalating violence threatens the stability of the region, civil war is not yet inevitable according to Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director for the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Kathleen Ridolfo, Regional Analyst for Iraq for RFE/RL.

One of the major factors addressed by the analysts that is contributing to the destabilization of Kirkuk is Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" campaign of the 1970's and 80's. The Kurds were the primary victims of the campaign and, following the removal of Hussein from power in 2003, have begun what some analysts describe as an "anti-Arabization" campaign to reverse the consequences of the previous ethnic cleansing. According to Hiltermann, the goal of the Kurds is to "stake a claim to Kirkuk as an integral part of Kurdistan" and institute a "managed process of settlement" or "forced displacement" of Arabs residing in Kirkuk to relocate to southern Iraq. "The [constitutionally-mandated] 2007 referendum will allow the majority Kurds to vote in favor of the annexation of Kirkuk into other Kurdish territory," Hiltermann said, but he predicted, "This will be violently resisted."

Ridolfo called Kirkuk a "microcosm for what is happening in Iraq," although the current level of violence is "not comparable" to that which is currently raging in Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. Despite other significant security concerns, Ridolfo said, the central Iraqi government must play a "more central role" in the conflict mediation process in Kirkuk: "Ethnic sectarian tensions have been exacerbated as Kurds rushed to repatriate." Ridolfo noted that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution provides the legal basis for repatriation and calls for a "reversal of abuses of the past," and "compensation for any loss." However, she continued, "the administrative and legitimizing ability of the Iraqi Property Claims Commission continues to decline."

Ridolfo also stressed the problematic role being played in Kirkuk by "outside actors," such as Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as the "competition between the two leading Kurdish parties, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party)." According to Hiltermann, "Jihadists have [also] moved to Kirkuk to stir up ethnic sentiments" and the general volatility of the region is aggravated by a dispute over the future of the territory's oil resources.

Hiltermann urged the U.S. to take greater steps to head off violence in Kirkuk, emphasizing that a "hands off policy will most likely lead to civil war," particularly "as we approach the 2007 referendum." He expressed doubt that the referendum would result in a "peaceful solution" to the Kirkuk question and suggested an alternative plan, developed by the ICG, which includes: canceling (or postponing) the referendum; appointing a UN envoy to mediate the conflict; negotiating an alternative solution such as a "power sharing agreement;" and providing an "interim status" for Kirkuk for "possibly ten years." "Without U.S. help," Hiltermann said, "This will not happen," because the "U.S. is the only actor that can convince the Kurds to drop their maximum demands."