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Iraq: Ethnic Tensions Increasing In Oil-Rich City

Kirkuk has seen a recent surge in violence (epa) NEW YORK, November 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As the government committee charged with reversing the "Arabization" policy pursued in Kirkuk under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein attempts to complete its constitutionally mandated task, ethnic tensions have increased as each community vies for control of the oil-rich northern city.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution outlines a three-step process to remove and reverse the Hussein-era "Arabization" policy in Kirkuk. The Ba'athist regime took extreme measures in the 1980s and 1990s to expel Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians from the city, including the Anfal campaign, and replacing the indigenous population with Arabs.

Post-Hussein governments have adopted a policy of "normalizing" Kirkuk through the repatriation of those displaced from their homes and the relocation of Arab settlers to nearby areas or to their traditional homes in the south.

The next 18 months will be crucial for the future of Kirkuk, as the Kirkuk Normalization Committee will need to have completed its task and the question of which region the city should belong to will be answered by 2007, when a census and referendum will take place. This should determine whether Kirkuk will be annexed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Tensions Between Kurds, Turkomans

While members of the committee charged with implementing Article 140 are meant to be impartial, tensions have broken out among different ethnic groups, who accuse the committee of being one-sided. Many of these accusations have come from representatives of non-Kurdish groups who believe that Article 140 only supports Kurdish interests.

Under the pretext of reversing the forced Arabization campaign, more than 100,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, thereby altering the city's demographics in their favor. Indeed, the implementation of Article 140 would most likely result in a Kurdish majority and Kirkuk will most likely be appropriated into the Kurdish autonomous region.

Jamal Shan, the deputy head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITC), said on October 2 that the implementation of Article 140 would be detrimental to the Turkomans because it would adversely affect the Turkoman areas, the Kurdish weekly "Hawlati" reported. The ITC is known to have strong ties to Turkey and holds three seats in parliament.

"We will act as an obstacle in the way of implementing Article 140" because it will "endanger the geography of the Turkoman [territories]," Shan said.

Conversely, the Kurds were angry when on October 21 Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appointed a Turkoman to the committee after the Turkomans complained that Article 140 only served Kurdish interests, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2006). Qadir Aziz, a representative of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani, stressed that Kurds are the majority in Kirkuk "The decision was only meant to please the Turkoman Front," he said.

Turkish, Iranian Apprehensions

Turkey and Iran have voiced opposition to Article 140 and the upcoming referendum concerning Kirkuk, indicating that both Tehran and Ankara are well-aware of the current demographic situation in the city. At the same time, several Iraqi officials believe Turkey and possibly Iran are behind some of the recent violence in northern Iraq, especially in Kirkuk.

Turkey has been quite vocal in its opposition to an expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region, let alone an independent Kurdish state. Ankara fears such a state would become a focal point of nationalism and separatism within its own Kurdish population, and oil-rich Kirkuk could be the foundation of a powerful future Kurdish economy.

In addition, Turkey has consistently backed the Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, and their historical claims to Kirkuk. This raises the suspicion among Iraq's Kurds that Turkey is interfering in Iraq's internal affairs by supporting Turkoman aspirations to counter Kurdish claims to the city.

Iran, too, has a sizable Kurdish population and Iranian leaders have indicated they are not comfortable with an independent Kurdish state, but prefer a Shi'ite-led central government that they could influence.

Iran and Turkey have cooperated for months in a military campaign against Turkish-Kurdish fighters holed up in the mountainous areas inside Iraqi territory. On September 5, Iran was accused of shelling the town of Mandali, deep in Iraqi territory, in an effort to oust anti-Iranian Kurdish guerrillas, international media reported.

In response, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a sharp warning in an interview with U.S. National Public Radio on September 25, that his government was prepared to support opposition groups in Iran, Turkey, and Syria if Iraq's neighbors did not stop interfering in its internal affairs, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2006).

"We are asking them [Iraq's neighbors] to stop interfering in our internal affairs, and especially the sovereignty and independence of Iraq," he said. "If the violence doesn't stop, the Iraqi people will support the opposition of other countries and will try to make trouble for them as they have done for us."

Prospects For Kirkuk's Future

September was seen as one of the bloodiest months in Kirkuk, as the city witnessed an unprecedented surge in violence. According to the U.S. military, there have been 20 suicide bombings and 63 roadside bombs since August. For many, the attacks were seen as a warning to stop the implementation of Article 140, as well as an attempt to accentuate the ethnic tensions within the city. The wave of violence has increased tensions among the Kurdish, Arab, and Turkoman populations, and the next 18 months may witness even more violence as the referendum nears.

The stakes are extremely high. With Kirkuk housing the second-largest oil fields in Iraq and accounting for 70 percent of Iraq's natural-gas deposits, the issue of oil revenues further underscores the strategic importance of the city.

Kirkuk, in a sense, is a microcosm of Iraq, with its mixture of ethnic groups and religious sects jockeying for power. Thus, if the situation in Kirkuk could be reconciled, it could perhaps be a model for resolving the divisions and sectarian strife currently engulfing Iraq as a whole. As an unnamed Western diplomat told "The Guardian" on October 28, "If Kirkuk survives, then there is hope for Iraq."

Iraq's Kurdish Region

Iraq's Kurdish Region

KURDISH AWAKENING: The ethnic Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq has struggled in recent years to reestablish its cultural and political identity after decades of oppression under the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In December, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled to this area and filed several reports:

Relative Peace Underscores Issue Of Kurdish Region's Future

Kurdish Culture Begins To Flourish In Kurdistan Region

Kurds Ponder How To Strengthen Autonomy After Elections

Irbil’s Kurds Live On A Hill Of Undiscovered Treasures

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.