The Other Iraqi Conflict
February 15, 2005
By Ken Sanders
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well below the radar of the mainstream media and America's collective
consciousness is a conflict brewing in Iraq. It is not the conflict
that so dominates our TV screens with endless tape loops of death
and destruction. It is taking place in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish
autonomous zone known as Kurdistan, and revolves around the future
of Iraq's Kurdish population and control of the city of Kirkuk.
As it currently stands, this other Iraqi conflict seems capable
of shattering any possible peaceful future in Iraq by thrusting
the nation into civil war, possibly dragging the neighboring Turkey,
Iran, and Syria into the fray.
Kurds are an ethnic minority in Iraq and make up approximately
20% of the population. Primarily located in the northern region
of Iraq, the Kurds claim the city of Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan
and historically theirs. (In the 1920 Treaty of Serves at the end
of World War I, Kurds were promised their own state, to include
Kirkuk, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. That promise
was denied three years later.) With proven oil reserves of 10 billion
barrels, or 10% of Iraq's total, Kirkuk is Iraq's second largest
During his reign, Saddam Hussein sought to "Arabize"
Kirkuk by forcibly displacing tens of thousands of Kurds and bringing
in Arabs from other parts of the country. Those Kurds who were permitted
to remain in Kirkuk were subjected to "nationality correction,"
whereby they had to change their ethnicity from Kurd to Arab.
Not surprisingly, therefore, following Saddam's removal, large
numbers of displaced Kurds returned to Kurdistan generally and Kirkuk
specifically in 2003 and 2004.
On the same day as Iraq's national elections, provincial elections
took place in Iraq's Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk. Following
the elections, Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk accused the Kurds of
fixing the provincial elections by allegedly flooding Kirkuk on
election day with Kurds from other parts of the country. An Arab
provincial candidate, Abdel Rahman Munshid al-Assi, was quoted by
the AFP as saying, "We are examining all options as we will
not have a real presence on the provincial council."
The Kurds, of course, deny any wrongdoing and accuse all Arabs
and Turkmen of failing to "understand democracy." Disturbingly,
however, as evidenced by a recent column in Kurdish Media by Dhanjit
Dhalliwal, there is at least a segment of the Kurdish community
calling for the removal of all Arab settlers from Kirkuk.
According to Dhalliwal, the Kurds do not seek to ethnically cleanse
Kirkuk since the Kurds have apparently shown great generosity in
their willingness to compensate the Arab settlers for their displacement.
In the next breath, and without specifying the terms of the proffered
compensation, Dhalliwal reminds that the Arabs stood by and watched
as Saddam expelled the Kurds and, therefore, are not mere innocent
In other words: turn about is fair play. Taking it a step further,
Dhalliwal argues that Arabs, Persians, and Turks have low morals
and that until they "own up to a history of evil and admit
guilt and wrong doings, persecution and violence will continue to
follow the path of the Muslim world."
Dhalliwal is not an aberration among the Kurds. As reported on
February 8, 2005 by Aaron Glantz of Inter Press Service, Jalal Talabani,
the Kurdish candidate for president or prime minister of Iraq, has
made clear that repatriation of all Arabs who settled in Kirkuk
since 1975 is a non-negotiable point for a Kurdish-Shia governing
coalition. Considering that the Kurds are expected to win between
50 and 70 seats of the 275-seat Iraqi Governing Council, it will
be hard to ignore the Kurds' demands outright.
In fact, current Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's political party has
reportedly struck a deal with the Kurds whereby the Kurds will support
Allawi for Prime Minister and Allawi's party will support Talabani
for President. Together, this Kurdish-Shia coalition is expected
to be able to neutralize the coalition of Shiite factions backed
by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Exacerbating these manifest racial, religious, and ethnic tensions
are the concerns and posturing of Turkey. Immediately following
Iraq's elections, Turkey's foreign minister, Abdullah Gal, not-so-subtly
implied that if Iraq's Kurds tried to annex Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan,
Turkey would be forced to respond, probably militarily. Indeed,
the Turkish military makes no effort to conceal its plans to deploy
troops into Kurdistan to "liberate" Kirkuk from the Kurds,
The problem with a Kurdish Kirkuk, in Turkey's view, is manifold.
First, until it was taken as part of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Kirkuk
was within Turkey's borders. As such, Turkish nationalists still
lay claim to Kirkuk as part of Turkey.
Second, the Turkmen in Iraq are considered ethnic brethren of Turkey.
Turkey created and provides financial assistance to the Iraqi Turkomen
Front, an organization which seeks to unify Turkomen by calling
upon Turkey to intervene in Kirkuk and expel the Kurds.
Third, Turkey has its own problem of a rebellious Kurdish minority.
In fact, since 1999, Turkish Kurds have used bases in Kurdistan
to launch attacks inside Turkey. In response, Turkey has taken to
crossing into Iraq to engage the Turkish Kurds.
Most ominously to Turkey, however, is its fear that with Kirkuk's
oil reserves in their control, Iraq's Kurds could form a viable
independent state. If Iraq's Kurds succeed in their quest for independence,
Turkey fears, secession-minded Kurds in Turkey might become inspired.
(Sharing Turkey's concerns in this regard are Iran and Syria, each
with their own significant Kurdish populations.)
Turkey's concerns about an independent Kurdish state are not unfounded.
On election day in Iraq, the Kurdistan Referendum Movement set up
outside official polling paces in Kurdistan and polled Kurdish voters
on the issue of an independent Kurdistan. According to a KRM press
release on February 8, nearly 99% of those polled voted for independence.
In Kirkuk, the result was nearly 100%.
The Kurdish (not Iraqi) flag flies throughout Kirkuk and all significant
government offices are staffed with officers of the two major Kurdish
political parties. Similarly, many of the signs in these governmental
offices are written in Kurdish. The Kurdistan Regional Government
controls the region and Baghdad law applies only to the extent permitted
by the Kurdish Parliament. Arab units of the Iraqi military are
barred from Kurdistan, as are Baghdad ministries.
In short, Kurds already consider themselves separate from Iraq
and think of Kirkuk as theirs.
As recently noted in the New York Times by Peter Galbraith,
former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, while defying exact comparison,
the current situation in northern Iraq shares similarities with
the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The U.S. and the international
community long ignored the reality of Yugoslavia fracturing into
separate ethnic states. By the time action was taken, it was too
late to hold the country together and prevent civil war.
While the Kurdish situation in Iraq is not yet at crisis-level,
Kurdish hunger for sovereignty will not be easily appeased. If the
situation in Kurdistan, however, is not addressed peacefully and
soon, someone, be it the Kurds or Turkey, will run out of patience
and all hell could break loose.