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Tensions in Iraqi City of Kirkuk Raise Security Concerns

July 28, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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Following a lull in violence in Iraq, bombings in the cities of Baghdad and Kirkuk killed dozens and wounded hundreds Monday. Analysts examine the state of security in Iraq and discuss the roots of ethnic and political tensions in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
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KWAME HOLMAN: Kirkuk was one of two cities in Iraq hit by violence today. Two dozen people were killed, nearly 200 were wounded when a female suicide bomber killed herself amid a crowd protesting Iraq’s draft election law.

The attack re-ignited longstanding tensions among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, each blaming the other for the bombing. A citywide curfew followed the chaos.

Kirkuk is on the edge of the territory controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government, but is prized by the Kurds, who consider it their capital. There’s no recent official count, but U.S. officials believe Kurds comprise more than half the city’s nearly 600,000 people, followed by Arabs and Turkmen.

Kirkuk borders on some of Iraq’s major oil reserves.

Last week, Kurdish members walked out of the Iraqi parliament to protest an election law that would redistribute power in the country’s 18 provinces, including a power-sharing arrangement for Kirkuk.

Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani — himself a Kurd — vetoed the law. Provincial elections, planned for October and something the Bush administration has pushed for, were thrown into doubt.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

DANA PERINO, White House Spokeswoman: The hope for an October time frame is unrealistic at this point, because the election law was vetoed by both of the — I think the president and the prime minister. So it goes back to the legislature and hopefully now that they can work out their differences.

KWAME HOLMAN: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish claims of sovereignty over Kirkuk and the rest of Kurdistan have been the subject of much contention within the Iraqi government.

What's at stake for Iraq?

Peter Galbraith
Former U.S. Diplomat
[U]nless this can be resolved and Iraq's constitution has a mechanism for resolving it, it could open a new front, that is, between Arabs and Kurds in the ongoing civil war in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: And for that, we go to Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador who served as an unpaid advisor to the Kurdish Regional Government.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Cole, before we get into the nitty-gritty of Kirkuk, what's at stake for Iraq as a whole in this unresolved dispute over this particular city?

JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, the Kurdistan Regional Government is a kind of confederacy. It took three provinces out of the 18 of the old Iraq and made them into one super-province with a parliament, a prime minister, a president.

It gives out visas. It's contracting with oil companies. It's acting like an independent state. And it very much would like to incorporate further territory from Iraq proper into itself, including the entirety of the province of Kirkuk, which is one of three major oil areas in Iraq.

So, really, the destiny of the country is at stake here. A U.N. official, Staffan de Mistura, called this the mother of all crises.

MARGARET WARNER: Peter Galbraith, do you agree that the destiny of Iraq or certainly the unity, potentially, of Iraq as a country is at stake in this unresolved dispute?

PETER GALBRAITH, Former U.S. Diplomat: No, because the unity of Iraq has already vanished. As Professor Cole said, Kurdistan is de facto an independent country, even has its own army.

So the issue is, how will this -- which side will control this particular bit of territory? And the struggle over Kirkuk is an old one. It's been going on for the entire history of Iraq. It was what produced the wars in the 1970s between Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the legendary Kurdish leader, and the Iraqi government.

So that unless this can be resolved and Iraq's constitution has a mechanism for resolving it, it could open a new front, that is, between Arabs and Kurds in the ongoing civil war in Iraq.

Multiethnic disputes

Juan Cole
University of Michigan
Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority. And they're afraid that, if Kurdistan gets rich through having Kirkuk's oil, that it will be a magnet and that there will be a kind of Kurdish unification.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Juan Cole, what would you add to that about why this is such a festering sore in Iraq? In other words, there are a lot of multiethnic disputed areas of Iraq, and we've seen some pretty ugly things going on. And yet you quoted someone saying this is the mother of all crises. Why Kirkuk?

JUAN COLE: Well, because it's being framed in black and white. That is to say, either Kirkuk will join the Kurdistan Regional Government, in which case the Turkmen and the Arabs in the province become a tiny minority in a largely Kurdish independent state -- in the long run, probably -- or it stays as a stand-alone province, in which case you have a restive Kurdish population that wants to join the Kurdistan Regional Government.

In addition to which, the neighbors have an interest in what happens here, because Syria, Turkey and Iran all have Kurdish minorities. Turkey has a very large Kurdish minority. And they're afraid that, if Kurdistan gets rich through having Kirkuk's oil, that it will be a magnet and that there will be a kind of Kurdish unification and a very large Kurdistan will emerge that might rip them apart.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Peter Galbraith, talk about the oil here as a factor. Is that one of the main reasons why Iraq doesn't want to give up Kirkuk? Because even if it is majority Kurdish -- though I know that's in dispute at the moment -- because of the oil?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, I'm sure that the Kirkuk oil field, which is one of the oldest in Iraq, is a factor in this dispute, although the Kurds have said that they don't claim that oil field and they will leave its management to the central government, even if Kurdistan -- even if Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan.

But there's another human element to this, which I think is also very important. Successive Iraqi governments settled Arabs in Kirkuk, and then Saddam Hussein greatly accelerated -- to work in the oil industry. And then Saddam Hussein greatly accelerated this process by then expelling the Kurds and the Turkmen.

So there's a real sense of grievance on the part of the Kurds and many of the Turkmen over the history. And there's no shared narrative as to who this city and province really belong to.

There is a process in the Iraqi constitution, article 140, to hold a referendum to resolve it for once and for all. I think most observers think that the Kurds probably would win that referendum, that they are the majority, but that then raises the issue that Professor Cole has rightly pointed to, which is, what do you do about the Turkmen and Arab minorities?

And clearly, in my view, there's a need to entrench some power-sharing arrangement so that, regardless of the outcome of that referendum, all sides have a stake.

The worst outcome I think, though, would be not to hold the referendum, because this then would simply defer a problem that has been a source of conflict for more than 80 years that one day or another has to be resolved.

Political solutions

Peter Galbraith
Former U.S. Diplomat
The point is, is that it is a resolvable problem. And this is one part of Iraq where the United States has a lot of leverage, because the Kurds want to have good relations with the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Cole, why have the parties resisted any kind of political solution? I mean, there was supposed to be a referendum last December; that was put off. Now the election law, which was going to reallocate power within the Kirkuk province among the three ethnic groups, that was turned down by the Kurdish president of Iraq.

I mean, is everyone playing a zero-sum game here? Is that why?

JUAN COLE: Sure, because, if you have a decisive outcome, then it probably means a lot of warfare, and violence, and trouble, not only inside northern Iraq, but possibly including with Iraq's near neighbors.

So the easy thing to do is to kick the can down the road. But that, as Ambassador Galbraith rightly says, is very unwise.

I mean, I think that this thing could be resolved. I don't think that the constitutional plan, which is to have a one-province referendum, is wise, because the Kurds are a majority now, probably in the province, and they would just win. And they'd drag the others kicking and screaming into Kurdistan.

But why not have the referendum set up so that the county level could decide to join or not to join Kurdistan, and then the Arabs and the Turkmen could maybe form a separate province?

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get down now to the stakes in the United States, beginning with you, Peter Galbraith. Is it fair to say that the U.S. hopes for withdrawing from Iraq, that Iraq could come to some sort of political reconciliation within the country, among its different ethnic factions, that that, in part, depends on Kirkuk getting resolved? I mean, or could Kirkuk remain in this unstable state and still the U.S. could leave?

PETER GALBRAITH: Kirkuk is the place that before the Iraq war I think most experts thought would be the biggest problem. And it is a ticking ethnic time bomb, precisely because it brings the Kurds and Arabs and this third group, the Turkmen, which have an ethnic link to Turkey, into the picture. And unless it's resolved, I think it will complicate a U.S. withdrawal.

The point is, is that it is a resolvable problem. And this is one part of Iraq where the United States has a lot of leverage, because the Kurds want to have good relations with the United States, and they look to the United States for their security, even after in the years ahead.

So the U.S. could play a role in trying to broker a genuine power-sharing arrangement in Kirkuk. The Kurdistan government is open to it. But so far, the U.S. diplomacy has been largely absent; it's been left to the United Nations.

MARGARET WARNER: And I'm afraid I'm going to have to broker an end to this conversation, so thank you both very much, Professor Cole and Peter Galbraith.