Feb 09, 2015

New Power Balance in Iraq leaves Question of ‘Occupation’ Unanswered

As the influence of the KRG and Pashmerga grows in areas of Iraq, grievances surrounding self-determination are still as poignant as ever. Shifts in power over the region do little to change the fate of underrepresented nations and peoples in the area with some calling for future referendums to be the only answer.

Below is an article published by Rudaw:

It is no secret that Middle Eastern countries, with few if any exception, would not support a future independent Kurdistan, despite several regional countries' economic investments. These same countries overwhelmingly reject the presence of Israel in the region as well, yet in some cases business continues behind closed doors.  

Recognizing that there are obvious and distinct differences between Kurdistan/Iraq and Israel/Palestine, there are also significant parallels between the “disputed/occupied” West Bank and the “disputed territories” in Iraq -- Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Diyala Governorates. Among these territories are a significant population of Kurds of varying backgrounds that had until quite recently lived outside the recognized borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), yet in recent months have largely come under its protection and jurisdiction. Nowhere else in all of Iraq is more contested than Kirkuk.

Kirkuk, the oil-rich, ethnically and religiously mixed city in north-central Iraq is often referred to by Kurds as “the Jerusalem” or “heart” of Kurdistan. Many take this to mean that it is the center of Kurdish political aspirations and central to the policy to complete the process of essentially “retaking what was stolen” by previous Iraqi regimes. Others reference the fact that Kirkuk, like Jerusalem, is a political and religious powder keg that has the potential to destabilize the country (and region) even further. Of course, both Jerusalem and Kirkuk are ancient cities inhabited for thousands of years and ruled by various empires, and both continue to unfortunately bear scars of war and bloodshed.  

The Kurdish narrative asserts that Kirkuk was and has been occupied by Arabs in recent years, and that more recently, under the diktats of Iraqi rulers like Saddam Hussein, Kurds (along with many Turkmen and Christians) were largely ethnically cleansed from Kirkuk and its surrounding villages in a brutal Arabization policy that swept much of northern Iraq. It was not until 2003 that the city began to resemble what was previously a thrivingly diverse, multicultural population. Depending on ones' political views or read of history, Kurds view what happened to them as an exile from their “Jerusalem,” and while Arabs, Christian, and Turkmen all lay claim to Kirkuk, Palestinians and Jews each claim ownership of Jerusalem as “their” holy city. Palestinians' narrative is that they have been in exile since their catastrophe in 1948. The Jewish narrative claims that they have been exiled from Jerusalem for nearly 2,000 years and have continuously yearned to return to their homeland.

In recent months there has been increased concern and antagonism from several Arab tribes in these aforementioned territories regarding perceived Kurdish “land grabs.” However, since the Peshmerga have been successfully pushing ISIS terrorists further back into Syria and other parts of central Iraq, they have been welcomed by many communities, including certain Arab and Turkmen tribes. 

When looking at a detailed map of Iraq, the “recognized” KRG is in fact a truncated version of historical and demographic Southern Kurdistan. The Peshmerga have claimed they have regained the overwhelming majority of land Kurds traditionally claim, and the ultimate objective appears to focus on establishing a strong, institutionalized and permanent presence in Shingal, northeast Mosul, Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmatu and Khanaqin areas. If successful in the long-run, this would give the KRG control over a tremendous portion of Iraqi territory. 

To be sure, these areas will be used by the KRG as additional leverage regarding future final-status negotiations with Baghdad, and it is likely that internal and external groups looking to diminish and offset Kurdish influence will seek to destabilize these areas, particularly “softer targets” more vulnerable to attacks. This threat is further heightened in the more mixed neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities, such as Kirkuk and Khanaqin, for example. In Kirkuk, an estimated 6,000 Shiite militiamen have been brought into the environs in recent days, and have even clashed with Peshmerga. 

Whereas Palestinians view Israel as an occupying power (either in 1948, 1967, or both), despite their initial welcome, many Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians will come to view the “disputed territories” coming under KRG control as “occupied” and will seek to extend their own respective influences from regional actors, though this has already begun to happen. To further complicate scenarios, there are some Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac and even Yezidi groups in the Nineveh plains who have been increasingly promoting the idea of Christian (or Yezidi) autonomy, or in more extreme cases, an independent Christian state in the Nineveh plains. Critics brush this off as merely posturing or rhetoric influenced by foreign and diaspora communities, yet it cannot be repudiated that these minorities in  these territories outside of the KRG are politically divided at present and cannot form a census on their stance vis-a-vis the disputed territories and the potential of accepting future Kurdish rule -- versus rule from the central government -- as there are Christian and Yezidi groups who support the notion of Kurdish rule, while others remain defiant and hold onto the broken dream of a unified Iraq, or carving out a separate entity from both Kurdistan and Iraq. 

Aside from historical claims and current demographic “facts on the ground,” the KRG would find even more international legitimacy if they were to institute a referendum for all peoples that legitimately live in the “disputed territories” claimed by the KRG. The results of this hypothetical referendum should be respected by all parties and actors, regardless of the outcome. Provided that the KRG and Peshmerga continue to respect minorities' rights (including political rights) and come to an agreement regarding oil-revenue sharing or at least continue to make genuine attempts to solve this seemingly intractable issue, the referendum results would likely favor Kurdish aspirations, hence solidifying their legitimate jurisdiction over the “disputed territories.” 

The struggle over Kirkuk, its oil and similar contentious areas will not disappear in the short-term. However, an action plan to institutionalize KRG rule, while ensuring security with Peshmerga and local Christian or Yezidi militias (if need be), while politically and economically incentivizing local communities and their leadership, will induce the international community to recognize that the populations themselves have agreed to join with the KRG and help build a multicultural and multi-confessional Kurdistan Region.