Saturday, November 11, 2006

Iraq's Kurds Press Their Claim On Kirkuk

As leaders insist on control of the oil-rich city, regional peace hangs in the balance.
By Aamer Madhani, Tribune staff reporter
Chicago Tribune
November 10, 2006

IRBIL, Iraq -- The skyline in this northern Iraqi boomtown is a mosaic of half-built concrete retail centers, sparkling new hotels and giant earthmovers and cranes working overtime. The cafe-lined streets buzz late into the night.

While in much of Iraq, coalition troops never leave their secure bases without donning bullet-proof vests and helmets, the few U.S. troops stationed in Irbil travel through the city wearing camouflage baseball caps. Instead of staring resentfully, Kurdish motorists honk their horns and smile as the Americans drive by.

The calm here is part of a separate peace forged by Kurds in the three northern provinces known as Kurdistan since the start of the Iraq war--only that peace soon may be in peril.

In coming months, Kurdish leaders will begin the process of laying their historic claim to the region's oil-producing center, the contested city of Kirkuk, thereby opening the door to a dispute with Arab and other Iraqis that potentially could immerse the Kurdish enclave in the kind of violence gripping the rest of the country.

The dispute could be one more headache facing the Bush administration and U.S. military commanders as they explore alternatives to their Iraq strategy in response to voters' clear demand for changes at the polls Tuesday.

A line in the sand

Kurdish leaders say the constitutional annexation and repatriation of Kirkuk is non-negotiable and necessary to rectify Saddam Hussein's policy of forced migration of Kurds, who for years were uprooted from their homes in the Kirkuk area and replaced by Arabs.

The leaders acknowledge their move on Kirkuk could have a destabilizing effect, at least in the short term. But for the Kurds, there is no bigger prize than the dusty city that sits atop billions of barrels of oil.

"There are many questions we face, but the only real question is that of Kirkuk," said Sadi Ahmed Pire, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's politburo in Irbil. "Kirkuk can be solved two ways: We can discuss it with the neighboring countries and Iraqi communities and solve the situation politically or we can solve it militarily. We hope to solve it peacefully, but this is an issue that cannot wait. It will be resolved."

Since the fall of the former regime, Kirkuk has been a flash point of ethnic strife, with fighting between the city's Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens, all of whom claim to be the predominant group in the city with ancestral ties to the land.

Thousands of Kurds who say they were displaced from the area during Hussein's regime have been living in a soccer stadium and other refugee camps around the city since soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and are awaiting repatriation.

The three-step plan for normalizing the situation in Kirkuk starts with bringing the predominantly Kurdish villages and towns that were administratively detached from the city under Hussein's regime back into the fold by March 29, according to the timeline set in the Iraqi Constitution.

The constitution also calls for a new census of the area to be completed by July 15 and for the people of Kirkuk to hold a referendum on whether they should join Kurdistan by the end of 2007. The Kurds also must negotiate an understanding with neighboring Turkey, which believes any move toward Kurdish independence will stoke unrest among the millions of Kurds in Turkey. Iran and Syria also have Kurdish minorities.

`Two separate countries'

Further complicating matters, Kurdish leaders say they might find themselves in a delicate position if the intractable violence pitting Shiites against Sunnis elsewhere in Iraq devolves into full-scale civil war.

"We've been living in what feels like two separate countries, because we are so separated from the violence in the south," said Mowloud Murat, a top political adviser with the Kurdistan Islamic Union. "If there was a civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis in the south . . . the Kurdish leaders would have no choice but to separate us from the rest of Iraq."

The Kurdish north has operated as an autonomous region since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when the U.S. military established a no-fly zone over Kurdistan. Kurdish leaders point out that they had more than a decade head start on the rest of Iraq in practicing democracy, which has contributed to relative stability in Kurdistan.

For the Kurds, the U.S.-led invasion was a risky venture because it rejoined the country's fate with Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab population. The Kurds ultimately were willing partners in the invasion but demanded that federalism and the return of Kirkuk would be core points enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution.

Pire and other Kurdish leaders see Kirkuk as an indisputable red line. The city, which is home to large populations of Arabs and Turkmens, is considered by Kurds the "heartbeat" of greater Kurdistan. It is the economic nucleus that makes the region, and perhaps an eventual Kurdish state, viable.

Kurds and U.S. officials blame the forced migration of Kurds, known as Arabization, on the former regime, but the policy of Arabizing the city and surrounding area goes back to the early days of Iraq.

Kamal Kirkukli, the deputy speaker of the Kurdish Regional Government, spends most of his days in an office that his Kurdistan Democratic Party has set up in Irbil to research the cases of families who were expelled from Kirkuk. The office is filled with hundreds of boxes of documentary evidence.

Kirkukli said that it is possible many young Arab men and women, who were born in Kirkuk on land their parents illegally gained, will be forced to leave the only homes they have known. While Kirkukli said the situation for some Arabs is difficult and not their fault, it is necessary that they move.

"What is built on a wrong remains a wrong," Kirkukli said.

Alaa Talabani, a Kurdish parliamentarian whose family was expelled from Kirkuk in 1991, said she fears that carrying out repatriation of Kirkuk too quickly could do more harm than good for the Kurdish refugees in the city.

In the short term, Kurdish leaders know they must remain tied to Iraq, while keeping focused on their long-term goal to establish an independent state, said Talabani, who returned to Kirkuk in 2003. To achieve the goal, she said, Kurds must help bring stability to the rest of Iraq and improve relationships with Turkey, Syria and Iran.

"It is too soon to deal with Kirkuk," said Talabani, who is the niece of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. "Maybe in a year or two, we can let the people of Kirkuk decide their fate."

Pulling apart

In ways both small and large, the Kurds seem to be separating themselves from the rest of Iraq.

Massoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdish Regional Government, in September banned the flying of the Iraqi flag in the Kurdish region. The Iraqi national government and Kurdish Regional Government also have quarreled over who has the right to negotiate with foreign companies vying for oil exploration in Kurdistan after a Danish oil company discovered oil near the northeastern town of Zakho.

Iraq's oil minister argued that oil is a national resource and revenues from the new Zakho find have to be shared with all of Iraq. Kurdish leaders contend the constitution calls only for the sharing of oil revenues from existing oil reserves and newly found oil is the property of the region where it is found.

While the security situation in much of Iraq has stifled foreign investment, hundreds of foreign outfits--from Turkish construction companies to a German bierhaus--have set up in Kurdistan. Although there has been economic growth, some businessmen complain Kurdistan is ultimately hampered by the security situation elsewhere in the country.

On a cool night in Irbil recently, hundreds of shoppers roamed the aisles of Ahmed Rekhani's $20 million venture, the New City Mall, while others loitered in the parking lot to stare at a pristine white Hummer that had pulled in.

The mall, which opened three weeks ago, is more of a one-stop retail center where you can purchase food, clothes and electronics. It sits on 23,000 square yards of land and includes a Turkish restaurant with a staff imported from eastern Turkey and a motel for out-of-town shoppers.

Sitting in his second-floor office, Rekhani nervously fingered a stack of invoices and explained to a visitor that he has sunk his fortune into a project that is risky at best.

"There is no one to insure us, no banks to give us loans," he said. "The security situation in much of the country is very dangerous. And while it is peaceful here, the dangers elsewhere in Iraq can easily affect us, and things could change quickly."

Anis Sandi, an Egyptian general manager that Rekhani recruited to help run the project, was more blunt about the situation:

"It's like we've built this whole thing on sand."

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