Foreign Policy Blogs


Of all of Iraq's myriad impossible situations, Kirkuk has America tied into perhaps its tightest Gordian Knot.   The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has a good little summary of the mutual frustration between Kurdistan and whatever passes as Iraq's central government. 

The Kurdish Alliance, the second-largest political bloc in the country, holds 53 of Baghdad parliament's 275 seats and are members of Maliki's Shia-led government. The recent tensions have damaged one of the strongest alliances in Iraq's severely fractured political landscape.The political disputes have simmered since last summer, escalating over the past few weeks. While Kurdish leaders insist they won't pull out of Maliki's government, they are growing increasingly vocal with their demands."I wouldn't call it a crisis, but there are ups and downs and mistrust between the two sides," said Qassim Dawd, an Iraqi parliament MP from the Maliki's United Iraqi Alliance list.

Kurdish leaders "have been negligent and made a lot of mistakes", said Mahmood Osman, an independent Kurdish member of the Baghdad assembly and one of the most vocal Kurdish critics of Maliki's government.

Now, Kirkuk is not the only sticking point between the Kurds and the central government- the way to share oil revenue is perhaps the biggest, albeit somehwat prosaic, concern- but it may be the most emotional.   Many Kurds consider the city a vital part of Kurdistan.  Many lived there, and it has a central place in the Kurdish psyche.

And, of course, central places in a national consciousness are only heightened by a shared history of suffering.   The battle of Kosovo Pjole maintains a major part of the Serbian national mythology, and was used my Milosevic to re-awaken Serbian nationalism.

 And the Serbs lostthat battle.  And it took place in 1389.   The tragedy of Kirkuk, in which Saddam uprooted as many as 100,000 Kurds during his Arabization programs (in tandem with thegenocidal Anfal campaign), has made it a place of sorrow and pain and longing.  

The US feels it owes the Kurds, who have been loyal and incredibly helpful to US goals, something.  A lot, actually.  But to re-Kurd Kirkuk would be just as traumatic to its Arab and Turkmen population.   This has already begun to happen, according to the Council on Foriegn Relations.

Since the removal of Saddam in 2003, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds and Turkmen returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their lost properties or reside in camps on the eastern fringe of the city. Some experts say their motivation is to rebalance the city's population in preparation for the December 2007 referendum. Most experts say Kurds now make up a clear majority and retain control over most of the city's important political posts (because of a ruling allowing around 70,000 displaced Kurds to vote despite not residing in the city).  

(that CFR article is also a neat little summary of Kirkuk's issues).

If the US allows Kurds their prize it may continue to tear up to government and the country.  If it doesn't the fiercely independent Kurds, so close to their national dream of independence, may tear it apart anyway.  Right now the Kurds are playing ball, but no one knows for how long, and it seems, considering their historical suffering and their current position as strong allies, few have the indecency to ask.

 (Update: The New York Times has a good article on how the Kurds might have over-played their hand, and are now letting their long-term goals slip away.)



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.