In the latest of a string of violent incidents in the northern city of Kirkuk, unidentified attackers fired a rocket yesterday at the headquarters of one of the two main Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The attack comes after some 2,000 Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkomans last week surrounded the PUK's head office to protest the Kurdish calls for autonomy and demand Kirkuk remain under the control of the central government in Baghdad.
At the time, one of the protest leaders, Ali Abdullah of the Democratic Turkoman Unity Party, said the demonstration was to reject any move to turn Iraq into a federal state with autonomous entities.
"We have gathered today for this demonstration to proclaim that the Iraqi city of Kirkuk is a city of peace that belongs to all ethnic groups and to say 'No' to suggestions of federalism and to say 'yes' to the unity and integrity of Iraq," Abdullah said.
Several bursts of gunfire during the protest left at least five people dead and debate is still raging in the city over who fired first -- Kurdish police or protesters. Another person was killed the following night as rival groups clashed in the city center.
Emotions have run high in Kirkuk ever since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April brought a dramatic change in its status.
After decades of a Hussein-era "Arabization" program that forced out much of its Kurdish population and replaced them with Arab settlers from elsewhere in the country, Kirkuk is now firmly under Kurdish control. The city has a Kurdish mayor brought to power when Kurdish fighters swept in on the heels of Hussein's retreating army, and the former Kurdish refugees are returning home. Many Arabs and Turkomans accuse the Kurds of grabbing power while the Kurds say they are regaining lost rights.
Now, tensions could be ratcheted even higher as Kurdish representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) press for adopting a federal system in which Kurdish-controlled areas would have a large degree of authority over security, taxes, and revenues from local oil fields. They hope to see that authority framed within the "transitional law" the council is drafting to serve as a temporary constitution paving the way for a sovereign Iraqi government to take power at the end of June.
The Kurdish initiative is politically sensitive not only because it affects the fate of Kirkuk and the rich Kirkuk oil fields. It also could force Iraqi leaders to begin deciding now the future shape of the Iraqi state: whether it will be divided into ethnic and religious-based regions or be tightly knit under a central government.
That speeds up a debate which, before the March/April war, saw Iraqi exiles agree Iraq should have a federal system but since then has seen many in Iraq and in neighboring states worry the formula could lead to the country's disintegration.
Mike Amitay of the Washington Kurdish Institute in Washington, D.C., says there are several reasons Kurdish leaders have decided to press their autonomy demands now, rather than wait until Iraq forms a sovereign government and begins working on a permanent constitution.
One reason is Kurdish unhappiness with the economic and political upheavals in much of the country. Amitay says many Kurds feel they need autonomy to protect the relative stability and economic prosperity they have enjoyed since breaking away from Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.
"I think the Kurds have determined at this point that they need to essentially function or promote their political agenda separate from the wider agenda -- that is quite confused -- being considered for the whole of Iraq," Amitay said.
Amitay also says that the Kurds feel they must act now, while the Coalition Provisional Authority still retains political control over the country. He says some Kurdish leaders feel they can win backing from the United States because of Washington's interest in rapidly and smoothly turning over power and because of the aid the Kurdish factions have given U.S. forces.
"They see the timetable [for rapidly handing over power] as being motivated only by the [U.S.] administration's concerns about Iraq in the headlines in November [2004, when U.S. presidential elections will be held]. So, they feel that they have an advantage in that the coalition owes them, perhaps, for their alliance, for not having to station combat troops in their area, for maintaining their own affairs, for running the different sectors of their society in a fairly painless fashion," Amitay said.
At the same time, the Kurds are determined to ensure they retain a future share of Iraq's oil income. Prior to the UN-administered oil-for-food program, which allocated 13 percent of Iraq's oil earnings to the Kurdish areas, the Kurds had to depend on Baghdad's goodwill for any share of revenues.
Amitay says the Kurds see control of the Kirkuk oil fields as the best guarantee they will get the money they need to keep their economy going. "The bottom line is the distribution of Kirkuk's oil resources," he said. "In order for the [Kurdish parties] to continue running their administrations and maintaining their sort of patronage systems, there needs to be a guaranteed stream of revenue. And we have seen in the past when that stream dries up, when hostile neighbors cut the flow of goods and materials into Kurdistan, the parties get edgy and even begin to fight each other for the crumbs."
So far, there is no sign that either the Iraqi Governing Council or Washington will resolve the complicated issue of the Kurds' autonomy demands quickly.
"The New York Times" yesterday quoted a senior legal adviser to the chairman of the IGC committee drafting the "transitional law" as saying the board is trying to reconcile the differences between its own draft and that proposed by the Kurds.
Feisal Istrabadi said, "There is substantial agreement that the status quo in the Kurdish region would be maintained during the transitional period." But he said no one is ready to accept building a federal Iraq made up of states defined by ethnic or religious identities. He gave no details of any discussion on the future of Kirkuk or its oil fields.
Washington said yesterday that it will not step into the debate but will leave the matter for the Iraqis to decide. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters: "We have always supported and will continue to support Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity. The Kurds are members of the Governing Council, and have themselves expressed commitment to a unified Iraq. The structure of a future Iraqi state, including federalist elements, is a constitutional issue for Iraq to decide."
As tensions over the autonomy demands grow, several neighboring states are watching with increasing unease.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned Iraq yesterday against creating any Kurdish or other ethnic entity. He said in an interview with CNN Turk television, "This is a red line and should be [seen as such] by all countries in the region, especially Iraq's neighbors."
Turkey, too, has repeatedly warned in the past against substantial autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan, calling it a step toward independence. Both Syria and Turkey reportedly fear that creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would inspire their own Kurdish minorities to seek greater freedoms. Ankara recently quashed a 15-year rebellion seeking Kurdish-self rule in southern Turkey that claimed more than 36,000 lives.