Iraq's territories which are disputed by both Baghdad and Erbil have long been a primary source of contention between Kurds and federal government. Among these territories Kirkuk is most important one and both Baghdad and Erbil have locked horn over it. The oil-rich Kirkuk province lies outside of the official borders of the Kurd's semi-autonomous territory and is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians. The province has one of the biggest oil fields of Iraq that is Baba Gurgur. Different ethnic groups like Kurds, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrians have conflicting claims on this city and all have their historical accounts and memories to strengthen their claims. Like Turkmen of Iraq consider Kirkuk as their cultural capital as it was ruled by Seljuk Turks for many years and Assyrians looks Kirkuk as their ancient capital of Arrapha. Kurds, on the other hand, refer to Kirkuk city as their “Jerusalem”, the city they lost and aspire to get it back. Moreover, historically Kirkuk was also a point of intersection for Ottoman, Persian, and independent Kurdish tribal interests and influences. Kirkuk has always been a multi ethnic vibrant city but now it has turned into most significant unresolved issue in the country.
The Kirkuk province always showcased the model of Iraqi diversity. Now, however, it has become a ticking time bomb which can anytime explode and can result in bloody sectarian civil war. Even now as well violent clashes between Turkmen and Kurds in Kirkuk city have started taking place. Kurds are also very much determined to include Kirkuk in the Kurdistan. Tamr Hussein a Kurdish journalist based in Erbil said Kurds will never give up Kirkuk and they are ready to defend the city against any attack. Moreover, Mr Hussein added if Baghdad wishes to mobilize forces to retake Kirkuk by force then Peshmerga will respond appropriately. Kirkuk in the past used to be a primarily a Kurdish city but due to “Arabization” policy of Ba’athist regime the demography of the city changed drastically. The process of Arabization included uprooting native Kurds and the settlement of a large number of Arab families from other parts of Iraq in their place, by providing large financial and economic incentives. But since 2003 after the fall of Ba’ath regime Kurds have returned in good numbers, and in recent years they have consolidated control over Kirkuk. Not only Turkmen and Arab are disputing the Kurdish claim over the city a prominent challenge for Kurdish security forces has emerged from the shia militias like- Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units and Badr Brigade. These militias have a strong presence in Shiite areas in the south of Kirkuk and in the Tuz Khormato area in neighbouring Salahuddin province.
The growing threat of armed conflict and communal violence between different ethnic groups of Kirkuk suggests that this the high time for a mediated solution. First of all, Kurdistan Regional Government which controls the city needs to build confidence between Kirkuk’s minority communities. This can be achieved by providing assurance that all ethnic communities will be treated fairly and will get fixed number of parliamentary seats and their cultural and educational rights will be protected. Every stakeholder should understand that the Kirkuk issue must be resolved amicably, through a political process and not through use of force and coercion. And for any political solution to be successful a strong political will is needed and compromises and concessions will have to be made by all the parties. Even the special status for Kirkuk within Kurdistan, like what Quebec has in Canada can be considered. In the meantime, until there is a permanent settlement between Erbil and Baghdad over future of Kirkuk. An interconnected approach to resources can be adopted similar to the Jordan-Israel water pipeline which will be mutually beneficial. Moreover, Kurdish and Iraqi authorities should realise that without resolving the issue of the disputed territories most notably Kirkuk it will be near to impossible for Erbil and Baghdad to have a stable relationship going forward. For Kurds also, Kirkuk is not only a priced possession which can make them economically sound through its huge hydro carbon deposit but it is also a huge crust of explosive containing a variety of diverse factors and conflicting interests, that could explode and can cause destruction of Kurdish aspirations for independence, if the Kurdish top brass does not handle the delicate issue cautiously, patiently, and wisely.
(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency Viewsaround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)