Is Kirkuk on Verge of becoming an Independent Region?

By Omar Sattar for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

The status of Kirkuk province, which is disputed by Arabs, Turkmens and Kurds, returned to the forefront after the Iraqi presidency announced a proposal June 18 to make Kirkuk an independent region. The plan has been met with mixed reactions.

The proposal stipulates the establishment of Kirkuk as an independent region, Iraqi Kurdistan, within its current administrative borders and power distributed among its main nationalist components. A Kurd would hold executive power, and the president would be a Turkmen and the speaker of parliament an Arab.

The conflict in the oil-rich Kirkuk province would appear to be one of identity more than power or influence. Turkmens view it as a Turkmen area and want it to remain so. On June 18, Iraqi presidency spokesman Khaled Shwani said that Turkmen members of Kirkuk’s provincial council support the proposal for the regionalization of Kirkuk.

A majority of the council must approve the measure for it to take effect. Specifics of the proposal must await its approval by parliament.

On June 26, the Turkmen People’s Party and the Turkmen Front rejected turning Kirkuk into an independent region, but the Turkmeneli party and the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) backed it.

In a statement to Almaalomah news agency on June 12, ITF member Qassem Hamza said, “The project of a Kirkuk region was submitted by the Turkmen bloc at the provincial council in 2006. This petition served as the starting point of our project. Establishing Kirkuk as an independent region is the best solution for ending the Turkmens’ suffering and claiming their rights. We strongly oppose any monopoly on the decision by the regional government whether Iraqi or Kurdish.”

Meanwhile, the Kurds argue that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan that was sectioned off by force by the former regime. While some Kurds want to reincorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Region, there are others who support the new proposal.

Abdul-Qader Mohammad, a member of the Kurdish Alliance parliamentary bloc in Baghdad, told Al-Monitor, “Kirkuk is a province in Kurdistan and should be integrated into the Kurdistan Region using tools provided for in Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. Since Arab parties have been hindering the implementation of this article, turning Kirkuk province into an independent region might be an acceptable compromise.”

Mohammad added, “Turning Kirkuk into an independent region should start with normalization, which means restoring the situation to the way it was before the Arabization campaigns launched by former President Saddam Hussein’s regime in an attempt to erase Kirkuk’s Kurdish identity.” In his eyes there is a “need to restore to Kirkuk its displaced Kurdish population and treat Arabs brought in by Saddam Hussein as expatriates since they’re not native to Kirkuk.”

He said, “Whoever opposes the idea of an independent Kirkuk region must immediately accept the implementation of Article 140 of the constitution without any delay or procrastination and set aside the excuse that the article was rendered obsolete."

Kirkuk's Arabs are divided on the issue and have not announced any positions or demands.

According to Article 140, and its invocation of Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law, normalization in disputed territories, including Kirkuk, must go through three phases: Members of the diaspora must be allowed to return and people not native to the area relocated and compensated if necessary to accommodate the returnees.

After conducting a census, a referendum is to be held on whether to integrate Kirkuk into Iraqi Kurdistan or maintain its current territorial status as an Iraqi province. Article 140 also states that normalization in disputed territories should be accomplished by the end of 2007. Mohammad told Al-Monitor that since the normalization deadline has passed, some parties argue that the article has been rendered obsolete, while others claim constitutional clauses cannot be overstepped before implementation.

Salim al-Muslimawi of the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA), a member of the Iraqi parliament’s regions committee, told Al-Monitor, “The constitution specifies the requirements for turning a province into a region, but disputed territories like Kirkuk are subject to a special constitutional clause. Therefore, these territories should not undergo the phases of legal regionalization.”

In accordance with paragraph 2 of Article 117 and Articles 118-121 of the constitution, a law was adopted on Feb. 11, 2008, establishing special procedures for establishing regions within provinces. As per this law, the provincial council must submit a petition to the federal government in Baghdad, which then refers the petition to the electoral commission to conduct a referendum on regionalization.

“As NIA, we oppose turning Kirkuk into an independent region given the current security situation, the Islamic State’s [IS] presence in many areas of Kirkuk, in addition to other subjects of dispute in Kirkuk,” said Muslimawi. “We believe that the province’s future must be discussed on a national level in order to reach a solution that gains everybody’s approval.”

He added, “We hope that political disagreements concerning Kirkuk are postponed until after the war with IS. Then we can discuss the future and means of application of Article 140 or other fair solutions.”

Any agreement on Kirkuk's future seems unlikely in the near future amid the existing divisions and given its significant oil resources. The issue appears to require a historic settlement with compromises by all the parties to guarantee Kirkuk’s legal status, by referendum on integrating it into Kurdistan, regionalization or preserving its current status as a province with administrative affiliations to Baghdad.

Armed conflict might become an option if disagreement over Kirkuk’s future intensifies.

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