The following article was published by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Certain comments by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over the past week have failed to receive the attention they deserve. As the political scene in Iraq quietens down for the Shiite Arbain festival and a long weekend, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at Maliki’s statements regarding disputed territories and the creation of new federal regions that may well reflect his negotiation strategy over coming months.
The most sensational aspects of Maliki’s comments are as follows. Firstly, they seem supportive of a plan by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to introduce a bill to parliament that would adjust by law the boundaries of governorates that comprise so-called “disputed territories” and have boundaries that were modified during the Baath. This would be done prior to a final settlement of the disputed-territories issues by referendum. Secondly, in practical terms, Maliki revealed that with respect to Salahaddin governorate, which was created by the Baath in 1976, the plan would involve transferring parts of that governorate with Turkmens and Kurds to Kirkuk and parts with Shiites to Baghdad. Thirdly, Maliki used these arguments against any early referendum for a Salahaddin federal region, indicating that the Talabani plan would have to be implemented prior to any decision on federal status.
The Talabani plan, or law proposal, has not been published in its entirety. Nonetheless, there is sufficient information in these comments by Maliki to identify both theoretical and practical problems related to its potential application.
On the theoretical level, we know the desire of Talabani and the Kurds more broadly to reverse any administrative changes to governorate boundaries that they interpret as having flowed from racist and anti-Kurdish motives. In particular, Kirkuk’s loss of a solid chunk of territory to Salahaddin in 1976 is seen as something that needs to be rectified. The Kurds appear to believe that the number of Kurds and possibly pro-Kurdish Turkmens in the area will work in their favour as far as aggregate numbers for a reconfigurated Kirkuk governorate are concerned, and also maintain that it would be more difficult to make these changes if Salahaddin was to receive federal status prior to a final territorial settlement. To some extent, chronology works in advance of the Kurdish claims in this regard, because the creation of Salahaddin in 1976 was one of the last major changes to the administrative geography of Baathist Iraq, potentially making it a convenient cut-off point. Other major changes, such as the creation of the Muthanna governorate and the separation of Dahuk from Nineveh both antedated 1971. Clearly, the Kurds do not want to go back to 1971 since they probably see the creation of Dahuk as a virtuous move whose reversal is undesirable (it was in fact part of the peace negotiations between the Kurds and the Baath at the time).