Kirkuk's ethno-linguistic groups vie for dominance

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Aug 10 18:07:10 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,  August 10, 2005

A City With 3 Chips on Its Shoulder

KIRKUK, Iraq - The fate of this hard-bitten northern city of roughly a
million people was supposed to remain in the balance until after Iraq's
politicians had finished polishing the elegant phrases in the nation's
constitution. Instead, Kirkuk has thrust its ungainly mix of money, power
and ethnic rivalry into the negotiations over Iraq's future as a
democracy. Iraq was supposed to ratify its constitution before settling
disagreements among the Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs in Kirkuk, according to
decrees handed down when the American occupation ran the Iraqi government.
Those decrees still have the force of law, but Kirkuk and those who claim
it are refusing to wait.

"We want our main demands included in the constitution," said Mahmood
Othman, a Kurdish independent on the committee writing the document. If
the disputes cannot be ironed out, he said, "we'd prefer to delay the
whole constitution." Kurds want the city and its oil riches to be the
capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkmens insist that they have historical
rights to Kirkuk and a majority in the central city. And many of the Arab
families that Saddam Hussein forcibly moved here during his "Arabization"
program - often after taking homes from people in the first two groups -
believe that they should have a substantial political voice and be allowed
to remain.

Mr. Othman and other Kurdish leaders are demanding timetables for the
return of Kurds to Kirkuk and a decision on whether it will be a part of
Kurdistan. The Kurds also want a formula for sharing revenues from the
extensive oil deposits around the city and a census they believe will show
that they, not the Turkmens, hold a majority. In this city that many see
as a potential flash point for a wider conflict, the Kurdish demands are
more than matched by the opposition.

"We are encouraging our people to claim their rights peacefully," said Ali
Mehdi, a local Turkmen leader. But if talks with the Kurds break down, Mr.
Mehdi said, "that will be the beginning of the civil war." Arab grievances
are just as sharp. And unfortunately for anyone who would like to see a
rainbow coalition of ethnic groups rule Kirkuk in harmony, the local Kurds
see any such arrangement as pointlessly complex.

"Those people who consider Kirkuk a complicated city are the ignorant
people of history," said Rizgar Ali Hamazan, a Kurd on the Kurd-dominated
Kirkuk Brotherhood list, which won 26 of 41 seats on the local provincial
council in January elections. As with so much else in Iraq, the
conflicting views on Kirkuk are rooted in conflicting readings of the same
history. A Turkmen garrison town during the Ottoman Empire, Kirkuk was
dominated by that ethnic group until after World War II, said Joost R.
Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis
Group, who has done extensive human rights work in northern Iraq.

Ayub Unus Ali, 73, a Turkmen who worked in the oil industry, said the city
was much more homogeneous in his youth. "Frankly, there was just
Turkmens," Mr. Ali recalled, though he also remembered scattered Arab
tribesmen. Reminiscences like that are not welcomed by many Kurds, who now
claim Kirkuk as an ancestral capital. Still, the oil industry did draw
people from Kurdish villages around the city, and the Turkmens had only a
slight majority by 1957, Mr. Hiltermann said.

The Kurdish presence continued to grow in the 1960's, and although the
Arabization programs reversed some of the trend, thousands of Kurds have
returned, many of them to shantytowns around the edge of Kirkuk as they
wait for their property cases to be resolved. Now, Mr. Hiltermann
believes, the best measure of the ethnic mix in Kirkuk is the elections
held in January, which indicated a clear Kurdish majority. "Turkmens have
a completely inflated sense of their own size," Mr.  Hiltermann said.

This spring, the Brotherhood List carried out a power grab after
negotiations with the Turkmens and Arabs on forming a joint government
broke down, using the Kurdish majority to secure nearly every top
administrative post in the local government. The move set off
demonstrations among the Turkmen and Arab populace. Not until Aug. 1,
after interventions by American officials, did the Kurds finally agree to
give more council seats to the Arabs and Turkmens.

But the agreement remains to be carried out, and just two days after it
was struck, the American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, set off a
new round of anger, this time among the Kurds. During a visit to Kirkuk,
Mr. Khalilzad said that he would not support the deportation of Arabs
whose families were relocated under Mr. Hussein's program, prompting Kurds
to claim that he was helping to marginalize them. Not everyone sees Kirkuk
as worrisome. Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart of the 116th Brigade Combat Team
acknowledged the American involvement in the negotiations but said that
all the agreements had been made freely by the Iraqis.

"We have been like a manager, or a guy in the corner in a boxing match,"
General Gayhart said. He added that the ethnic tensions "are predominantly
between the political groups" rather than ordinary citizens. Still, in
interview after interview, those citizens bitterly complain that they find
it difficult to win jobs from ethnic groups beyond their own.

It is unclear how far the Kurdish demands for timetables and a census go
beyond the current law, which states that a permanent resolution on the
city's status should wait until after the constitution is ratified and
property claims stemming from Mr. Hussein's Arabization program are
settled. But members of the constitutional committee are considering
formulas for sharing the oil wealth from provinces, like the one
surrounding Kirkuk.

"Part of it will go to the federal government and part to the governorate
which produced the resource," said Thamir Ghadban, a member of the
committee who is a former oil minister. But Mr. Hamazan, the Kurdish
official, made it plain with an analogy that the Kurdish claim on Kirkuk
goes beyond oil. "One day the oil of Texas will run out," Mr. Hamadan
said. "And then the Americans will not love Texas?" he said, driving home
his point with a bit of sarcasm: "They will give it to another country."

Dexter Filkins contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and an
employee of The New York Times from Kirkuk.

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