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4/21/07

Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis

Media Release by International Crisis Group

Kirkuk/Amman/Brussels, 19 April 2007: A new approach is urgently needed to settle the status of Kirkuk, where security is deteriorating and an explosion of ethnic tensions could destroy any gains anticipated from the U.S. surge in Baghdad.

Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis,* the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the northern Iraqi city and region which are ethnically mixed and rich in oil. Two factors are to blame for growing tensions: Kurdistan Regional Government insistence on a status referendum by year’s end, despite bitter Arab and Turkoman community opposition; and exploitation by Jihadi fighters, who have found fertile ground for chaos by exacerbating communal tensions.

“The Bush administration is preoccupied with saving Iraq by its new security plan in Baghdad and has ignored the Kirkuk crisis”, says Joost Hiltermann, Crisis Group’s Deputy Middle East Director. “This neglect could cost the U.S. severely”.

Kurds consider Kirkuk a lost heirloom they are about to recover by following steps laid out in the Iraqi constitution. Arabs and Turkomans consider the process a rigged prelude to possible break-up of Iraq. Turkey fears both worsening of its own Kurdish problem if Iraqi Kurds gain Kirkuk and more chaos on its borders if Iraq breaks up.

With all sides dug in, debate should move off outcomes to focus on a fair and acceptable process. The U.S. should recognise the risks of explosion and press Kurds, Baghdad and Turkey alike to adjust policies. A referendum conducted against the wishes of the other communities in 2007 could cause the civil war to spread to the Kurdish region, until now Iraq’s only quiet area. A referendum postponed without a face-saving alternative could lead the Kurds to withdraw from the Maliki cabinet, producing political crisis.

Washington, with UN help, should encourage the Kurds to forge an alternative Kirkuk strategy, which will need to incorporate progress on Iraq’s hydrocarbons law (key elements of which are still to be negotiated) so as to cement the Kurdish region within Iraq; and address Turkey’s concerns about the PKK, the Turkish-Kurd guerrillas.

Fortunately all sides in Kirkuk seem to agree on need for dialogue. The Kurds recognise that the strategy they have followed might gain Kirkuk but will not enable them to hold it peacefully. Some appear ready for a new approach. The international community should encourage the Kurds gently but firmly to pull back from the referendum and implement confidence-building measures such as reallocating administrative posts to better reflect Kirkuk’s ethnic balance. All sides should reduce rhetoric.

“Imposition of exclusionary Kurdish rule in Kirkuk via an ethnically-based, simple-majority vote and annexation is a dead-end street”, says Middle East Director Robert Malley. “A lasting settlement requires a deliberative and consensus-based process”.

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