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A Tale of Two Iraqi Cities

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
June 29, 2006

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To date, most of the ink spilled on Iraq has been devoted to the country's escalating violence, its substandard reconstruction, the Sunni Triangle, or the political goings-on in the Green Zone. Less attention has been paid to the south and north, whose provincial councils are looking to break further away from Baghdad. Yet the future of a democratic Iraq could depend on flashpoints like Basra and Kirkuk.

Both cities are politically fractured, militia infested, and oil rich. Kurds refer with reverence to Kirkuk (GlobalSecurity.org) as their Jerusalem. As this new Backgrounder explains, they stand accused by Shiite nationalists and Sunnis—both generally opposed to federalism—of reversing years of Saddam-imposed Arabization and repatriating the city with expelled Kurds, the better to influence a December 2007 referendum on the city's future (VOA). Some in Baghdad—not to mention Ankara—say if Kirkuk falls to the Kurds, full-fledged autonomy may come next. That is why, as CFR Fellow Steve Cook and Adjunct Senior Fellow Elizabeth Sherwood Randall say, Turkey has pressed Washington to change the Iraqi constitution, which calls for a referendum on Kirkuk's status next year.

Meanwhile, Basra has emerged as what Eurasia Group's Peter Khalil calls "the lifeline to the Iraqi government." The city holds Iraq's richest oil fields and conveniently hugs the Persian Gulf. Shiite militias, criminal gangs, and a corrupt governor all vie for control of Basra's violence-prone streets. Smuggling remains rampant. Political consensus is rare. Fadhila, the Islamist party currently in power, continues to call for greater shares of Iraq's oil revenue. "While political balance and cooperation have been scrupulously maintained at the national level between the [Shiite] factions, violent jockeying is quickly escalating at the local level," says Oxford Analytica, an international consulting firm. Basra's rise in violence is discussed further in this new Backgrounder.

The fates of Kirkuk and Basra may hinge upon upcoming efforts to revise the Iraqi constitution, a process which promises to be contentious. The main issues, explained in this Backgrounder, will be issues of revenue-sharing, de-Baathification, and, of course, federalism.

The regions, not the center, will decide Iraq's fate, according to federalism advocates like CFR President Emeritus Leslie Gelb. Yet why should the Sunnis, Iraq's traditional rulers who predominantly reside in the resource-poor center, support a federalization of their country? Because, as Gelb argues, "running their own region should be far preferable to the alternatives: being dominated by Kurds and Shiites in a central government or being the main victims of a civil war."

CFR Adjunct Fellow Noah Feldman takes a different tack. He says the political process and the attainment of some power-sharing agreement must take precedence before anything else. "Once, security was going to enable politics," Feldman writes in the New York Times Magazine. "Now it is supposed to be the other way around: politics will buy security."

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