Not Everyone in Kurdistan Is Cheering Kurdish Independence
In Iraq’s multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, this week’s referendum has sparked celebration — and serious discontent.
KIRKUK, Iraq — As the last polling stations closed on Monday evening, crowds of cheering Kurds thronged the Boulaq neighborhood in Kirkuk. Families waved Kurdish flags from car windows and young men clapped and danced in the street. Kurdish Asayish security struggled to impose a curfew, confiscating an assault rifle from a woman who was firing in the air in celebration.
The festivities followed a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence, which covered not just the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq but also disputed territories currently controlled by Kurds but also claimed by Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.
Not everyone was celebrating in Kirkuk. The referendum was held over the objections of city’s Turkmen, Arab, and Christian populations, and even staunch supporters of Kurdish independence acknowledged that the city was on tenterhooks. “The most sensitive part of any future dialogue between Kurds and Baghdad will be Kirkuk,” said 54-year-old Kurd Ali Mohamed, one of the last people to vote at Bekhout School on Monday. “Kirkuk epitomizes the problems of Iraq.”
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) gambit to hold an independence referendum against the will of the federal government, neighbors Turkey and Iran, and much of the international community was nowhere more risky than in the disputed territories. Kurdish leaders are betting that if they can maintain calm in the coming days they will be in an improved position to negotiate with Baghdad. But with Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga skirmishing in outlying towns in the disputed territories, and Baghdad and neighbors threatening punitive measures against the Kurds, the risk of major sectarian conflict has risen to an all-time high.
The Kurds claim Kirkuk province is historically Kurdish, but their interest in the city may have just as much to do with the oil fields underneath it, which would play an essential role in keeping afloat the economy of an independent Kurdish state. (Kirkuk fields currently provide the KRG with an estimated 275,000 barrels per day.) The city’s Turkmen population contests Kurdish historical claims to the city, however, and like Kirkuk’s Arabs wish to remain part of Iraq.
Many of Kirkuk’s Arabs were resettled from southern Iraq during a campaign of ethnic gerrymandering under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which displaced tens of thousands of Kurds from the oil-rich region. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, though, a new constitution attempted to lay out a road map for resolving the question of governance of disputed territories whose demographics had been affected by Arabization. Article 140 of the constitution stipulated that populations would be “normalized” by resettling Arabs and Kurds to reverse Arabization, after which a referendum would be held to decide whether remaining residents wanted to join the Kurdistan Region of Iraq or stay in federal Iraq. That referendum was never held, and today there are no reliable figures for the demographics of Kirkuk — holding a census remains too politically fraught — but since 2003 Kurds have returned in large numbers, and in recent years they have consolidated control over Kirkuk.
Two days before the referendum, Kirkuk Governor Najmiddin Karim — himself a Kurd — inaugurated a 26-meter-high statue of a Peshmerga on Kirkuk’s outskirts. The figure of the flag-bearing fighter in traditional Kurdish clothing was built to commemorate the Kurdish fighters who have controlled the city since federal police and army units fled Kirkuk ahead of the Islamic State’s 2014 advance across northern Iraq.
The city’s Arabs and Turkmen viewed the statue the same way they had the hoisting of the Kurdish flag on government buildings earlier in the year, and the decision to hold the Kurdish independence referendum in the city at all — as an illegitimate move to preemptively decide Kirkuk’s future. Both Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Governor Karim deny the charge. “This referendum vote is not about Kirkuk being in the Kurdistan region or being in Iraq,” Karim told Foreign Policy ahead of the vote. “The basis of deciding the future of Kirkuk is still Article 140.”
Far from being reassured, Turkmen and Arab leaders in Kirkuk warn of impending communal violence stemming from the referendum. “If we go to a referendum without consensus, it will be an sectarian war in Kirkuk,” deputy head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front Hasan Turan told FP ahead of the vote. “We decided to boycott the referendum.”
Likewise, Sunni Arab leaders opposed the vote. “The Arab community in Kirkuk fully rejects the referendum being held in this province,” local Sunni councilor Sheikh Burhan al-Obeidi said. “We consider Kirkuk an Iraqi city.”
In contrast to high turnouts in Kurdish areas, polling stations in predominantly Arab and Turkmen neighborhoods were quiet. In the mixed Kurdish-Turkmen neighborhood of Boulaq, a Kurdish election supervisor estimated that just a third of eligible Turkmen had voted. Outside of the city in districts that are even more intensely contested, polling stations were only set up in Kurdish areas, according to researcher Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. “No Turkmen would ever walk over to one of these neighborhoods and vote no,” she said.
While Kurdish forces are solidly in control of the city of Kirkuk, areas like Tuz are contested between Kurdish forces and Shiite militias. Formerly a predominantly Kurdish part of Kirkuk province, Tuz was attached to Salahaddin province under Saddam to reduce Kurdish influence in oil-rich Kirkuk. The provincial capital Tuz Khurmatu has been the scene of fierce clashes in the past, and Kurds and Shiite militias again skirmished there on referendum day.
Perhaps the greatest risk of conflict, though, will come if Iraqi forces mobilize in the south. While Kurds in Kirkuk were celebrating Monday evening, the Iraqi parliament demanded that troops be sent there and to other disputed territories. Karim said he hoped such rhetoric would die down and calm would prevail. “We’re hoping — and I personally believe — that threats of violence will not materialize.”
Without a legal mechanism for implementing the outcome of the referendum, Kurds now hope to enter secession talks with Baghdad. The response from Baghdad, however, has not been encouraging. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is under pressure from hardline Shiites not to compromise, was defiant in an address on state television on Monday. “We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum, because it is unconstitutional,” he said.
The Kurds, meanwhile, are yet to outline a strategy to bring Baghdad to the negotiation table. In an in-depth interview with FP in June, Barzani declined to say how the Kurds would respond to Baghdad stonewalling talks. When asked again in a press conference on Saturday, he replied: “We will never, ever close the door to negotiation from our side.”
Baghdad, on the other hand, is considering a range of punitive measures against the Kurdistan Region. Already it has asked other countries not to buy oil from the KRG based in Erbil and has threatened to close Kurdish airspace. Turkey, meanwhile, has threatened to shut down the pipeline on which the KRG relies to access foreign markets, and its military has carried out military exercises near the border.
If holding the referendum in Kirkuk was a Kurdish power play, the KRG may have overplayed its hand. If the referendum raises tensions to the point where dialogue collapses, the landlocked Kurds risk being isolated by Baghdad and its neighbors, a scenario that played out once before during the 1990s. “I think this referendum was so much about having more leverage for any negotiations that will happen in Kirkuk,” said AUIS’s van den Toorn. “I think at this point, though, that opportunity for negotiation is probably lost because of how polarized it is between Erbil and Baghdad, and how in a corner Abadi is.”
Back in the polling station in Boulaq on Monday evening, Kurdish voter Mohamed offered an Arabic proverb when asked about the future of Kirkuk. “If you want something, you have to compromise,” he said. But when asked how this applied to the Kurds in Kirkuk, he answered: “The vote was our compromise.”
Photo credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images