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Iraq: Kurds Warn Against Delaying Kirkuk Referendum

Iraqi Kurds demonstrating in Kirkuk on December 12 (epa) NEW YORK, December 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- As 2007 approaches, one of the more contentious issues in Iraq looks likely to come to the fore: the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

In the Iraqi Constitution approved by the Shi'a and Kurds, Article 140 calls for a three-step process to normalize Kirkuk by reversing the "Arabization" policy implemented under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Upon completion of the normalization process, which has seen thousands of Kurds return to the city and it surroundings, a census and referendum is to take place sometime in 2007 to determine whether or not Kirkuk will be assimilated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

However, as Iraq prepares itself for what is expected to be a difficult and sensitive process, the recommendations by the U.S. Iraq Study Group and increased warnings by Turkey to postpone the referendum have alarmed Kurdish leaders. Kurdish officials have recently issued warnings that any postponement of the referendum could plunge the relatively peaceful Kurdish north into chaos.

Kurds Fear Another Betrayal

The Iraq Study Group described the Kirkuk situation as a "powder keg" and recommended that the referendum planned for 2007 be delayed. Kurdish leaders reacted angrily and assailed the group's recommendation, calling it an affront to Iraq's sovereignty, particularly since the Kirkuk referendum is enshrined in the constitution

"The issue of Kirkuk will be resolved in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution Article 140. Consequently, this constitutional question will be resolved by the Iraqis themselves. No one can interfere in that," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said in a December 9 statement on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan website.

The Iraq Study Group's recommendations concerning Kirkuk have awakened the Kurds' fear of betrayal. The Kurds have been enthusiastic supporters of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the removal of the Hussein regime. In fact, the Kurdish north has been the only region in the country where U.S. soldiers do not regularly face hostile actions. The Kurds believe that by supporting the U.S. effort in Iraq, they in turn will be given the opportunity to take back what is rightfully theirs, the semi-autonomous north with Kirkuk, and its massive oil fields, as its crown jewel.

Therefore, for the United States to even suggest postponing the resolution of Kirkuk's status reminds the Kurds of the last time they felt betrayed by U.S. promises. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States called on Iraq's Kurds and Shi'a to rebel against Hussein's rule, and promised U.S. support that never came. The rebellion was crushed by the Iraqi Army, and millions of Kurds abandoned their cities and villages and sought refuge along the Turkish and Iranian borders.

Indeed, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani directly referred to this incident when reacting to the Iraq Study Group report. "We smell in this report the attitude of James Baker in the aftermath of the war in Kuwait," he said, referring to the U.S. decision not to assist the Kurds during the rebellion nor to overthrow Hussein when Baker was secretary of state under former President George Bush.

Tensions Rise With Turkey

On December 10, at a conference held by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Manama, Bahrain, Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said Kirkuk's future status carried significant implications for Turkey, AP reported on December 11. In addition, he called on Iraq's government to avoid imposing an "unrealistic" future on Kirkuk, a veiled threat that Turkey would not sit idly by and watch the city fall under the control of the Kurds.

In response, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, warned Turkey not to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. "You speak of Kirkuk as if it is a Turkish city. These are matters for Iraq to decide," he said.

Turkey has repeatedly expressed its unease over the Iraqi Kurds' bid to annex Kirkuk, which the Turks believe could form the foundation for a strong economy that could eventually fund the Iraqi Kurds' bid to establish an independent Kurdish state. Ankara fears that a Kurdish state would become a focal point of Kurdish nationalism and incite its own Kurdish population to seek autonomy.

Threats Of Secession, War

Ghafur Makhmuri, a member of the Kurdish regional parliament, told "The Kurdish Globe" on December 12 that if the recommendations by the Iraq Study Group concerning the fate of Kirkuk are implemented, then the Kurds might be forced to secede from Iraq.

"The part of the report that calls for postponing the implementation of the constitutional Article [140] on Kirkuk will lead to an explosive situation in the country," Makhmuri said.

Secession by the Kurds would present a disastrous scenario that could ignite a regional conflict. Iraq's fragmentation would greatly increase the likelihood of Turkish military intervention, not only to prevent its own Kurdish population from seceding, but also to protect northern Iraq's Turkoman population, who are ethnic Turks.

More bluntly, the president of the Kurdish regional government, Mas'ud Barzani, warned that if Article 140 was ever deferred, then the region would plunge into war, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on December 9.

"If there ever would be serious strife, it would happen then. If there ever would be a bloody war, an organized and a determined war, it would only take place then, and only then would it [the situation] become dangerous," Barzani said.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.