The Iraqi Kurdish Question

The Iraqi Kurdish Question

Demands by Iraqi Kurds for greater autonomy have roiled their Turkish neighbors.

April 19, 2007 10:13 am (EST)

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A recent war of words between Turkish officials and Iraq’s Kurds has revived concerns of a cross-border conflict in northern Iraq, the most peaceful part of the country. The head of Turkey’s military recently threatened an invasion of the region to clear it of pro-independence Kurdish rebels who are offered sanctuary by the local government. Ankara also fears an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might further encourage separatism among Turkey’s own sizeable Kurdish population. A major bone of contention remains the unsettled status of Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city in northern Iraq whose large oil fields are coveted by many groups. An upcoming referendum, slated for late 2007, on the city’s status has drawn protests from Turkish and Arab governments. Tensions have risen in Kurdistan while the U.S. military focus remains squarely on its security operations in Baghdad.

What triggered the recent flare-up in tensions?

In early April, Massoud Barzani, a top Iraqi Kurdish leader, threatened to “interfere” with the Turkey’s Kurdish populations if Ankara continued “interfering” in northern Iraq, particularly in Kirkuk. His comments set off a political storm in Turkey. A U.S. State Department official called them “dangerous, provocative, and unhelpful.” Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University says Barzani wants to lay down a marker with the Turks, but may have stepped over the line. “He’s very cocky and thinks he has all kinds of support,” she says. “But does he really think the [Kurdish militia] peshmerga can save him from a Turkish incursion?” In response to Barzani’s comments, Turkey’s top military chief, General Yasar Buyukanit, said the army should carry out a cross-border invasion to root out Kurdish rebels holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzani, in an April 16 meeting with new U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, seemed to retreat from his earlier outburst, but added “we will never accept being threatened.”

Is a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq likely?

Experts disagree. On one hand, Turkey has made a number of small-scale and mostly unsuccessful incursions into northern Iraq over the past few decades. Experts say an upturn in similar kinds of attacks—air strikes or commando raids—may be more frequent. But a full-scale invasion on the scale imagined by Buyukanit remains an unlikely scenario, says Joost Hiltermann, a regional expert with the International Crisis Group. “They would never go across the border without U.S. approval,” he says. The comments made by the Turkish general, he says, owe more to internal politics in Turkey, which will hold presidential elections in May, than to military realities on the ground. “It’s mostly just bluster,” says Hiltermann. What is more, he adds, given the region’s inaccessible terrain, no government has been able to dislodge Kurdish militants from the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. “It’s like Tora Bora,” he says. But others say an incursion by Ankara is not improbable. “Turkey is under a lot of stress,” says Yaphe. “I don’t think it would take much [for the situation] to flare up.”

What are Turkey’s main grievances with Iraqi Kurdistan?

The Turkish government has demanded that Iraqi forces arrest members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who use northern Iraq as a haven to carry out attacks against Turkish targets, and extradite them back to Turkey to stand trial. Turkey fears this group is resurgent and estimates as many as four thousand PKK rebels are currently in Iraq. Some experts note the timing of the latest Turkish-Kurdish tensions coincides with a presidential election in Turkey and may represent the government pandering to popular support for a crackdown against Kurdish insurgents. Others expect an increase in cross-border attacks as the snow melts in the mountains of northern Iraq. To tackle the Kurdish problem, Turkey has forged an uneasy alliance with Iran, which also holds substantial Kurdish minorities with pro-independence goals. Iran has reportedly even begun shelling Kurdish targets and abetting Islamist groups in northern Iraq.

What is the position of Iraq’s Kurds?

Many of Iraq’s Kurds sympathize with the aims, if not the methods, of the PKK, which pushes for greater Kurdish autonomy. But the leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan is nervous about upsetting the generally-stable status quo by offering full support to the PKK. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations says in this interview that a Kurdish-led clampdown against the PKK could provoke a new round of violence in the north between the various Iraqi Kurdish political factions and PKK. Still, a bigger issue for Iraq’s Kurds is not the presence of PKK forces on their soil but the unsettled status of Kirkuk.

Why does Turkey oppose Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk?

Turkey considers Kirkuk a historically Turkmen city, though some experts debate the merits of this argument. “They talk of this as a deep emotional issue, that the Turkmen are our brothers, but part of this is an invention,” says Yaphe. “Since when did they care about the poor Turkmen?” Turkmen and Turks are ethnically and linguistically related, but most experts say a bigger fear for Turkey is the oil wealth that would flow into the hands of Iraqi Kurds. Turkey fears it would provide a steady flow of revenue from Iraqi Kurds to fund the separatist struggle of some Turkey’s thirteen million ethnic Kurds. In Ankara’s view, Kirkuk provides the final piece for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, which could whip up Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. Hence, Ankara has vociferously protested the upcoming referendum, as mandated by the Iraqi constitution, to determine Kirkuk’s fate.

How have the Kurds sought to claim Kirkuk?

Although the Kurds have been in de facto control of Kirkuk since 2003, they want the city to be incorporated officially into their self-governing region. They won a major victory in March when Baghdad endorsed a relocation plan for Arabs, mostly poorer Shiites, who were forcibly moved to Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign. This measure was mandated by Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution. It is a voluntary program with participants reportedly receiving about $15,000 and a plot of land, but Yaphe says a campaign of intimidation—or what she calls ethnic cleansing, at the hands of the Kurds—has preceded these relocation efforts. “You can be shot or you can go,” she says. An estimated 350,000 Kurds have transplanted themselves to Kirkuk since April 2003, while roughly 150,000 Arabs have fled because of intimidation or violence. “They’ve complained about being Arabized,” says Yaphe. “Well, now they’re Kurdifying the area.” Hiltermann says many of the city’s Arab residents were not forced out but fled voluntarily. “Most people don’t want to be there,” he says. “It’s not safe. There are no jobs, no infrastructure.”

Why does Kirkuk hold so much importance to Iraqis?

The city remains home to large Turkmen, Arab (both Shiite and Sunni), Kurdish, and Christian populations, each citing ties dating back centuries. “The Kurds see Kirkuk as their Jerusalem but the Turkmen see it as the same way,” Yaphe says. But underneath the surface, the city’s large oil reserves may be driving these groups to claim control the city. Located 180 miles north of Baghdad, Kirkuk and its surrounding area hold roughly 8 percent of the country’s estimated 78 billion barrels of oil reserves. The Kurds have already have already signed production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies to develop oil fields in the region. The deals come amid heavy debate in Baghdad over a nationwide law to distribute oil revenues. The highly contentious law focuses on clarifying vague language in the Iraqi constitution over how oil revenues from future oil fields should distributed and whether existing contracts already made by the Kurdish authorities would be recognized. The Kurds may partly compromise on the hydrocarbon law “from a desire among Kurds to have companies operate in their territory with the confidence that a national law would impart,” writes Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The city has also witnessed a string of recent suicide attacks, mostly at the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents. Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat, calls Kirkuk a “ticking ethnic time bomb.” Experts expect an escalation of violence there ahead of the referendum. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army has a presence in the city and has reportedly staged attacks against PUK and KDP government institutions.  

What is the likelihood of the referendum on Kirkuk taking place?

There is considerable resistance from Sunni Arabs and Turkmen to the referendum taking place as scheduled. The bipartisan U.S. Iraq Study Group recommended it be delayed until a more favorable political climate emerges. Kurdish officials in Baghdad have repeatedly threatened to pull out of the government if their demands on holding the referendum are not met, and the Shiites in power have a tacit alliance with the Kurds. But the terms of the referendum have yet to be determined, including Kurdish demands to push out the borders of Kirkuk’s province to include four largely Kurdish towns. The Kurds have met stiff resistance from Sunni Arab politicians as well as from Sadr’s Shiite faction, which fears a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk would spur Iraq to break up along ethnic lines. Hiltermann, in a new ICG report, calls the referendum process “a train wreck” and presses the U.S. government to create a new process to reach a final status on Kirkuk that is acceptable to the Kurds and other ethnic and political parties in Iraq.

What role has the United States played?

The United States is in a bind, experts say. On one hand, as Hiltermann points out, the Kurds have been the most reliable U.S. ally among Iraq’s warring ethnic and political factions (though tensions heightened in January after U.S. Special Forces nabbed five Iranian operatives in Irbil without notifying Kurdish authorities first). On the other hand, Washington does not wish to upset its already-fractured relations with Ankara, a traditional U.S. ally in the region. The United States classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization but has neither pressured the regional Iraqi Kurdish government to rein in the PKK rebels nor deployed troops to northern Iraq. “It’s a question of not wanting to upset the apple cart in northern Iraq,” says CFR’s Cook. “[The Turks] want the United States either to engage the PKK militarily directly, or to give Turkey useful intelligence so the Turks can go after the PKK themselves.” Washington has repeatedly told the Turks not to intervene in Iraqi affairs and appointed a retired Air Force general, Joseph Ralston, as a special envoy to defuse the crisis in Kurdistan. According to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, Ralston warned the White House last December that Turkey might invade by the end of April or seize an eight-mile border strip in northern Iraq unless there is a heavier U.S. intervention. Experts say Washington is preoccupied with security operations in Anbar Province and Baghdad. That could change with a flare-up of violence—or ratcheting up of political rhetoric—along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

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