Three months after parliamentary elections were held in Iraq, a new government has yet to be formed, and it appears that the status of Kirkuk remains one of the stumbling blocks on the way to forming a new coalition. Even if this were not the case, and there certainly are other equally, if not more formidable, obstacles that have to be removed, Kirkuk as Iraq’s seemingly most intractable problem will be high on the agenda of any new government. For what it’s worth, it is also high on the agenda of the people in and around Kirkuk, and the steadily mounting tensions among its communities are testament to a situation that is far from improving.

A diverse city and region

Kirkuk is a diverse province and city with three main ethnic groups-Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen – who all have different tales of suffering and entitlements to tell. The relative size of these population groups can only be estimated at the moment as no reliable census has been conducted since 1957. The UN currently estimates the total population of Kirkuk at just over 900,000 people. Of these, just over half are estimated to be Kurdish, while Arabs and Turkomen constitute roughly 35% and 12% of the population, other communities around 1%.

Part of the problem in Kirkuk today is that over time the population of Kirkuk has significantly shifted as a result of Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation campaign which involved the “re-districting” of Kirkuk (i.e., the detachment of several districts from Kirkuk governorate), the expulsion of Kurds and, albeit to a lesser extent, Turkomen, and the settlement of Arabs, primarily Shia’ from the south of Iraq. These historic injustices have been recognised legally in the post-Saddam period-but with problematic results: return migration of Kurds is seen by Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk as an attempt by Kurdish elites in Erbil to influence the outcome of a future referendum, while Kurds view especially Arab hostility to the return process as simply a continuation of Arabisation policies.

All three communities in Kirkuk thus have very different narratives of past present suffering and injustices, narratives, moreover, in which the respective other communities are more often than not perpetrators rather than fellow victims. Grievances based in past victimisation, the experience of consequential deprivation, and the expectation of continuing and potentially intensifying discrimination have informed each community’s agenda of demands regarding the status of Kirkuk in Iraq and governance arrangements in the province. To Arabs, the idea of Kirkuk joining the Kurdistan Region is completely anathema and synonymous with future discrimination and marginalisation. Even a Kirkuk outside the Kurdistan Region but one that becomes a region itself is viewed with suspicion across the Arab spectrum as the very substantive powers of self-governance that regions enjoy under the 2005 constitution combined with the fact of a Kurdish majority population in Kirkuk do not bode well from an Arab perspective. Hence, Arabs strongly advocate for a Kirkuk governorate with only the limited powers

Kurds, on the other hand, in their majority consider Kirkuk as an inalienable part of the historic and geographic Kurdish region and point to Article 140 of the 2005 constitution that prescribes a referendum on the future status of the province. Denying Kirkuk a referendum is seen not only as unjust but also as a betrayal of a compromise accepted by the Kurds. It is not difficult to see how Baghdad’s procrastination on the referendum date and modalities does not, from a Kurdish perspective, bode well for the future.

The smallest among Kirkuk’s three main communities are the Turkomen who can point to many instances in their distant and more recent past when they have suffered at the hands of both Arabs and Kurds. Hence, Turkomen are wary of domination from either Baghdad or Erbil and have advocated to date for a strong Kirkuk region in which they are protected qua power-sharing arrangements against discrimination and political exclusion. All three of the major communities accept the need for special measures to protect the smaller minorities in Kirkuk and include them into the political process of the province.

An explosive mix of competing claims

These potentially explosive local dynamics to one side, Kirkuk also has become a symbol of the contentious nature of the broader Iraqi political process and has become entangled in a protracted bargaining process between Arabs and Kurds. The main dimensions of this process are constitutional reform, the governance of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves, and the resolution of territorial disputes. Kirkuk, in a sense, marks the essence of these unresolved problems: a disputed territory of enormous symbolic significance to Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen alike, it is also presumed to sit on about 13% of Iraq’s hydrocarbon reserves, and determining its political status within Iraq and its internal governance arrangements goes to the heart of the 2005 constitution and some of the reforms proposed to it. Kirkuk has thus become a highly significant pawn, and prize, in the wider confrontation between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. This has led to a marginalisation of all local communities in Kirkuk, and to their instrumentalisation by the power brokers in Baghdad and Erbil. What is more, the international community has largely come to accept this structure, and endorsed, and facilitated, a process in which the future status of, and governance arrangements in, Kirkuk are negotiated between Baghdad and Erbil. Local input from Kirkuk into this process is at best marginal.

In turn, this centralisation of the Kirkuk settlement process has led to local communities increasingly to rely, and become dependent, upon their patrons outside Kirkuk. Thus, Arabs have aligned themselves with Baghdad, Kurds must seek support in Erbil, and Turkomen depend highly on help from Ankara. As local communities rely on external sponsors, the latter, in turn, have invested much of their own political capital by committing themselves to particular “solutions” of the Kirkuk dispute. This makes local bargaining over power-sharing arrangements more complex and increases the opportunity for spoilers to derail, or at least delay, meaningful local compromise. On the Kurdish side, this is further complicated by the rivalry between KDP and PUK and by the emergence of a third major Kurdish political party, Gorran, which, while it has failed to obtain any seats in Kirkuk in the 2010 parliamentary elections split the Kurdish vote enough to reduce the overall number of seats won by Kurds. On the other hand, the strong support that the predominantly secular Shi’a alliance, Iraqiya, received in the 2010 polls indicates a potential convergence of Arab and Turkomen interests, as well as a hardening of their opposition to a referendum and subsequent inclusion of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region. With Baghdad and Ankara equally opposed, and Washington more concerned with rapid exit and a modicum of at least short-term stability afterwards, the balance of power over Kirkuk is now strongly stacked against Kurdish aspirations.

Kirkuk is also beset by problems well beyond the control of its citizens and their representatives. Controlling Kirkuk, or preventing someone else from doing so, has major resource implications, especially in terms of oil and gas reserves. Control of Kirkuk is also symbolically important for all three of its main ethnic groups, but especially so for Kurds who have come to see Kirkuk as “their Jerusalem”. Politically, the future of Kirkuk is, like those of the other internally disputed territories of Iraq, tied up with the full implementation of Iraq’s 2005 constitution, which, in its Article 140, stipulates normalization (i.e., reversal of Arabization), a census and a referendum “in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens” (concerning the status of these territories, i.e., whether they are to become part of the Kurdistan region). The future status of Kirkuk has thus become a major bone of contention between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq as a whole, and has become entangled in two other disputes-over a federal hydro-carbons law and constitutional reform. Beyond Iraq, Kirkuk matters to Turkey which allegedly fears that a Kirkuk that is part of the Kurdistan Region would further encourage Kurdish separatism in Iraq and the region as a whole, including Turkey. Being, rightly or wrongly, seen as having significant potential for igniting an all-out civil war between Arabs and Kurds, the future of Kirkuk also matters to the international coalition forces in Iraq, and especially so the US, who cannot afford for Kirkuk to derail plans for the withdrawal of combat forces.

Local, national, regional, and international factors and dynamics thus combine in a near-perfect storm of conflicting interests, mismatched capabilities, and diverging agendas. In all this, the fate of local Kirkukis has become a peripheral distraction at best and an unwelcome inconvenience at worst. This is all the more unfortunate as local initiatives over the past three years have shown some promise in preventing Kirkuk from becoming engulfed in sectarian warfare. An agreement was reached between political representatives of Kirkuk in December 2007 on governance arrangements, they committed themselves further to genuine cooperation and power sharing in the Dead Sea Declaration of December 2008 and again in the Berlin Accords of April 2009, the latter including a specific agreement on the distribution of senior posts in the provincial administration as mandated under Art. 23 of the Provincial Elections Law of Iraq. While these agreements remain essentially unimplemented and while local governance arrangements are at best part of a broader solution of the problems of Kirkuk, they are nonetheless significant indicators that Kirkuk need not remain an intractable problem, let alone that it should become the death knell of a democratic Iraq.

A viable solution…for now?

While a compromise solution is thus clearly possible, it will have to be negotiated within a broader context that is defined by two sets of parameters: the constitution of Iraq (notwithstanding the possibility of negotiated changes to the constitution as part of the settlement process) and the balances of grievances, demands and powers shaping the dispute over Kirkuk inside and outside Iraq. Among the various existing proposals two are particularly relevant from my perspective: the UNAMI proposal for special status and an idea floated by the International Crisis Group some time ago proposing a ten-year moratorium on settling Iraq’s internal territorial disputes.

Putting two and two together, one could think of a solution for Kirkuk in terms of an “interim status” – recently widely used mechanism to settle protracted territorial conflicts, such as in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan and in the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement. Historical precedents for such interim solutions can be found in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. Importantly, settling on an interim solution is not the same as accepting the increasingly untenable status quo that currently exists.

Kirkuk needs to have a more clearly defined status under the Iraqi constitution, its residents need to have an opportunity to elect their local representatives again (there were no provincial elections in Kirkuk in 2009), and these representatives need to be given a chance to establish proper arrangements for the governance of the province. Special status, as interim status, thus, would need to include local power-sharing arrangements. Any powers assigned to Kirkuk would need to be more substantive and numerous than what is currently foreseen for governorates in the constitution and they would need a degree of legal entrenchment that would assure all parties of the relative security of their status.

In addition, provision would need to be made for future changes in the status of Kirkuk. One could either imagine a new timeline (or roadmap) for the implementation of Article 140 or a mixture of Article 140 and provisions of the Law on the Formation of Regions (Law 13/2008), i.e., widening the referendum options beyond the issue of Kirkuk joining the Kurdistan Region. This would not rule out any kind of special influence of either the KRG or the central government in Kirkuk, but might be better conceived of as special relationships that different communities within Kirkuk might want to enjoy with “outsiders”, including, possibly, an option for the Turkoman community to have a formal relationship with Ankara.

All important in achieving an interim settlement that is sustainable and involves mechanisms for final status determination would be the involvement of local Kirkukis in the process. Political elites from the province have shown not only remarkable appetite for a settlement but also maturity and capacity to reach agreement on how to govern themselves, most notably in the April 2009 Berlin Accords. Yet, it is not only the question of local governance institutions (i.e., power-sharing arrangements) which need to be decided locally. Equally important is the question of which policy areas the communities agree lend themselves to exercising powers locally. This involves issues of local administrative capacity (which can be developed) and issues of whether specific competences are exercised jointly by all communities (qua power-sharing arrangements) or separately (qua community self-governance). Finally, local communities must be given a say in determining the final status of Kirkuk at the end of an interim period. This should not be limited to simply a local vote in a referendum. It requires local input into its very modalities: when is the referendum held, is its date pre-determined or are conditions set for it, can it be triggered, further postponed, or abandoned at a specific point and by what procedure, who decides when about what options should be put to the voters, etc. Again, the important point here is about achieving consensus among the local parties that informs processes that have a significant impact on their life. While not denying the fact that local parties are not the only ones with a stake in the future of Kirkuk, they are the ones most immediately affected by it and their interests therefore deserve special consideration, and certainly more than they have received to date.

The main advantage of an interim settlement in which Kirkuk would enjoy a special status within Iraq would be that this just might be acceptable to the main parties involved. For Baghdad, it would offer an arrangement in which Kirkuk would essentially remain under central control, even though it would have enhanced competences compared to ordinary governorates. For Erbil it would not preclude the future option of Kirkuk joining the Kurdistan Region, thus keeping a crucial Kurdish aspiration alive and offering an important bargaining chip with the central government on other issues equally, if not more, important to the Kurds. It would also ensure that the relationship with Turkey remains intact. Finally, for Kirkuk itself a special interim status would have some important future-proofing qualities as it would create arrangements that would give Kirkukis real powers independent of either the KRG or the central government and facilitate local governance by establishing power-sharing arrangements that would enhance the quality of democracy experienced by its residents. It would be difficult to see how any future change of status could legitimately take away either powers or power-sharing institutions from Kirkuk, regardless of whether it becomes a region of its own, joins the Kurdistan Region or simply at some point has its special status made permanent.