Will oil-rich Kirkuk be the center of an imminent Arab-Kurdish conflict?

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On the same Monday that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) conducted a referendum on their independence, the Iraqi Council of Representatives in Baghdad adopted a number of strong decisions in response to their neighbors in the north.

The most prominent of these decisions is the one which included the conflict areas, the most significant of which concerned the oil-producing province of Kirkuk. What makes the province so much more important compared to Nineveh, Saleheldin and Diyala governates, is that on the one hand Kurds do not want to have independence without Kirkuk, while on the other hand Baghdad insists the province belongs wholly to Iraq.

The internal conflict regarding Kirkuk has many observers fearing that it might be a spark of a war between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government where KRG’s President Masoud Barzani stressed several times “that Kirkuk would not be abandoned”.

Iraqi SWAT troopers stand guard on a street during Kurds independence referendum in Kirkuk. (Reuters)
Iraqi SWAT troopers stand guard on a street during Kurds independence referendum in Kirkuk. (Reuters)

Among the decisions voted by the deputies in Baghdad was the demand to Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to redeploy the Iraqi army in the conflict areas between Baghdad and Erbil, most importantly Kirkuk.

The Iraqi parliament also voted “to call the Iraqi central government to return oil fields in the conflict areas, so that they remain under the supervision and control of the Iraqi Oil Ministry”.

The Kurds have always called for the annexation of the oil-rich Kirkuk to their regions and considered it a Kurdish region. It seems that knowing the origin of the province has become difficult nowadays, especially that the region had witnessed wars with attempts to change its demography.

According to some insiders, Kirkuk province is of Turkmenia origin but witnessed an “Arabization campaigns that included forced displacement and cultural Arabization of Turkmen and Kurds” in the region.

After the United States-led coalition overthrew the former Iraqi regime in 2003, the Kurds insisted on annexing Kirkuk to their northern province. As Iraq needed social and political consensus at the time, Iraq’s parliament passed article 140 of the constitution with American mediation.

However, article 140 of the Iraqi constitution has not been implemented despite the expiration of the time frame stated. Despite this, the Kurds managed to control Kirkuk and many of the conflict areas after the defeats of the Iraqi army, in return for the advance of ISIS armed militias in the summer of 2014.

During that same summer, before ISIS attacked areas controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Barzani has said in several interviews that Kurdistan is not concerned with the Iraqi internal problems, and that it was time for the Kurds to plan for their destiny, which included planning for a referendum on independence and that ISIS militants were the last of their concerns.

After the Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk, Barzani said in a joint press conference in Erbil with former British Foreign Secretary William Hague that “the entrance of the Peshmerga forces into Kirkuk ended Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution of the conflicted areas”.

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces, supported by the international coalition, fought a fierce war against ISIS who were fast approaching the surrounding mountains of Erbil. The province of Kirkuk was one of the regions that witnessed the war, but along with the war, reports were issued accusing Kurdish forces of working against the Arab population in the province.

In a report issued on November 14, 2016, Human Rights Watch confirmed that the security forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan region illegally destroyed entire Arab villages in areas that had been restored from ISIS. Barzani told them that he refused to allow the Arabs to return to their villages because the province was Kurdish.

An Arab man works on rebuilding his destroyed house in Kirkuk's Huzeiran neighborhood, Iraq. (AP)
An Arab man works on rebuilding his destroyed house in Kirkuk's Huzeiran neighborhood, Iraq. (AP)

In a 78-page report entitled “Marked With An X”, the rights group said that the houses were destroyed between September 2014 and May 2016 in the conflict areas in Kirkuk and Nineveh, which is officially under the authority of the Iraqi government but actually under KRG control after expelling ISIS from those areas. It is here where the KRG’s Peshmerga forces targeted the houses of Arabs while maintaining those owned by Kurdish families. The KRG has said that these areas are historically Kurdish and that they intend to integrate them with the Kurdistan region.

There have been marked differences between Baghdad and Ankara, especially in the era of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, when Iraq made close connections with Turkey alongside the Erbil government. The KRG exported oil through Turkey, which provoked the current Iraqi government after Maliki’s fall.

On May 6, 2016, the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources said in a statement that “16.8 mln barrels of oil were exported to the Gihan Turkish port since last April”.

It added that “exporting 563,000 barrels of oil per day to Turkey, adding that 416,000 barrels were exported from the region, and 147,000 thousand barrels from Kirkuk province, stressing that the export was done under the control of the Iraqi National Oil Company Sumo”.

Turkish and Iraqi troops are pictured during a joint military exercise near the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi. (Reuters)
Turkish and Iraqi troops are pictured during a joint military exercise near the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi. (Reuters)

The provincial government said that it started exporting oil independently after Baghdad suspended their provincial budget. But Baghdad has always maintained the opposite, confirms that it suspended the budget of the region after Erbil started exporting oil without its consent.

Regardless of which side was in the right, there is no doubt that the suspension of the budget had seriously damaged the economy in the north. Erbil considers oil their best weapon in facing the economic challenges and therefore does not want to lose Kirkuk no matter the cost.

It remains that the Kurdistan region is geographically surrounded by forces opposing the referendum. Iraq, Turkey and Iran have taken steps to punish the region after the Kurdish referendum went ahead as planned on Monday.

Turkey, which was supporting the region against Baghdad, is now threatening the region to stop taking oil from them, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted Ankara would close the Iraqi-Kurdistan oil pipeline which passes through Turkey in response to the insistence of the leaders of the region on conducting the independence referendum.

Erdogan said on Monday in a speech during his participation in an international conference in Istanbul: “Let us see now who will sell the Iraqi Kurdish oil? The Tap is in our hand, and when we close it ends”.

Erdogan considered the referendum on secession from Iraq as an illegal decision and that it should be nullified regardless of its results, going even further in describing it as “an opportunistic decision” for power.

There is no doubt that Kirkuk is important for Arabs, Turkmen and the Kurds. In recent months, the province has witnessed controversies after the provincial council voted to raise the flag of Kurdistan on its government buildings, a decision considered by both Baghdad and Ankara unconstitutional and provocative.

On September 14, the Iraqi parliament voted to dismiss the governor of Kirkuk, Najmiddin Karim, in response to a request from Abadi after his province decided to participate in the Kurdish referendum.

The Kurdish group in the parliament rejected the dismissal of the governor, saying that the decision was issued by an Arab parliament and not a federal one. The Kirkuk provincial council, which was held in the absence of Arab and Turkmen deputies, stressed the illegality of the decision of the Iraqi parliament.

On the referendum day, Kirkuk witnessed a large presence of the Kurdish security forces, where Erbil sent military reinforcements to the province where there was a bloody conflict between Kurds and Turkmen on the referendum eve.

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with Iraqi rapid response members fire a missile against ISIS on the outskirts of Shirqat. (Reuters)
Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) with Iraqi rapid response members fire a missile against ISIS on the outskirts of Shirqat. (Reuters)

Despite this, Shukhwan Abdullah, head of the Kurdish group in the Iraqi parliament told Al Arabiya that Kirkuk will witness another referendum under the supervision of the United Nations to choose between Iraq and Kurdistan.

The Secretary-General of the Arab Right Party in Kirkuk, Hatem al-Tae’i told Al Arabiya that the Arab position is clear and expressed by the Arab deputies in the Iraqi parliament and the Governing Council of the province, where they rejected the referendum in general and in Kirkuk in particular.

The secretary of the Turkmen National Movement in Kirkuk called on the Iraqi government to send the Iraqi army to maintain security and civil peace there.

Will Kirkuk witness a Kurdish-Arab war?

Amid this ongoing crisis, the question remains whether Kirkuk will witness an Arab-Kurdish war, especially after the Iraqi parliament called on Abadi to redeploy the Iraqi army in the conflict areas. After Badr Organization, one of the factions of the popular crowd confirmed their readiness on Monday, many observers are wondering whether their next destination will be Kirkuk among the other conflict areas.

The leader of the organization Karim Nuri, on Monday, also threatened saying that “our next destination will be Kirkuk and the conflict areas; occupied by armed outlawed gangs who do not comply with the orders of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces Haider Abadi,” noting that “all moves will be under the control of the Iraqi state. We will implement what the General Command of the armed forces requires, which is the popular crowd part of”.

There are also unconfirmed reports of military movements for some popular mobilization unites who are moving toward Kirkuk.

Will the province be the witness of an impending armed conflict between Erbil and Baghdad? Both time, and the movements of armed forces will tell.

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