Now can we pay attention to Kirkuk? Please?

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP Carnage in Baghdad commands so much of our attention that it’s easy to overlook what may be the most dangerous tinderbox in Iraq: the Kurdish region in the country’s north. As Iraqi Kurdistan continues to assert its political and economic autonomy, Kurdish leaders have set their sights on making Kirkuk—a multiethnic city containing Kurdish, Turkmen, Arab, ...

602451_070419_pkk_05.jpg
602451_070419_pkk_05.jpg

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP

Carnage in Baghdad commands so much of our attention that it's easy to overlook what may be the most dangerous tinderbox in Iraq: the Kurdish region in the country's north. As Iraqi Kurdistan continues to assert its political and economic autonomy, Kurdish leaders have set their sights on making Kirkuk—a multiethnic city containing Kurdish, Turkmen, Arab, and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians—Kurdistan's capital. During the drafting of Iraq's Constitution in 2005, the Kurds succeeded in inserting a requirement that the city hold a census and referendum by December to determine Kirkuk's ethnic majority and political future. 

Complicating this are five factors:

MUSTAFA OZER/AFP

Carnage in Baghdad commands so much of our attention that it’s easy to overlook what may be the most dangerous tinderbox in Iraq: the Kurdish region in the country’s north. As Iraqi Kurdistan continues to assert its political and economic autonomy, Kurdish leaders have set their sights on making Kirkuk—a multiethnic city containing Kurdish, Turkmen, Arab, and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians—Kurdistan’s capital. During the drafting of Iraq’s Constitution in 2005, the Kurds succeeded in inserting a requirement that the city hold a census and referendum by December to determine Kirkuk’s ethnic majority and political future. 

Complicating this are five factors:

  • Turkey has historic claims to the city, based on the latter’s considerable Turkmen population
  • Kurdish leaders have encouraged Kurds to repopulate the city following years of Baathist Arabisation
  • Kurds easily outnumber Turkmens and would thus “win” a referendum
  • Kirkuk produces about half of Iraq’s oil exports
  • Oil or no, the Kurds view Kirkuk as their “Jerusalem”

Yesterday, The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius warned that unless the United States and federal Iraqi government rein in Kurdish support for radical Kurdish guerrilla groups such as the PKK, Turkey and Iran will invade Iraqi Kurdistan to weed out separatists. Turkey may do so before the end of April, according to Ignatius. He also reminds us of some recent saber-rattling (also highlighted in several Morning Briefs at the time):

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned that if the Turks meddled in Kirkuk, ‘then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey.’ The head of the Turkish general staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, responded that ‘from an exclusively military point of view,” he favored an invasion of Iraq to clean out PKK havens. If the Turks do attack, counters one Kurdish official, ‘their own border will not be respected. They will not be the only ones to choose the battlefield.'”

A question mark now hangs over whether the United States and Iraqis can and will stop the Kirkuk referendum, as a recent report by the International Crisis Group beseeches them to do.

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