Kurdish Independence: Harder Than It Looks | Joost Hilterman
Joost Hilterman is the Chief Operating Officer at the International Crisis Group
The jihadist blitz through northwestern Iraq has ended the fragile peace that was established after the 2007-2008 US surge. It has cast grave doubt on the basic capacity of the Iraqi army—reconstituted, trained and equipped at great expense by Washington—to control the country, and it could bring down the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose eight-year reign has been marred by mismanagement and sectarian polarization. But for Iraqi Kurds, the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other groups has offered a dramatic opportunity: a chance to expand their own influence beyond Iraqi Kurdistan and take possession of other parts of northern Iraq they’ve long claimed as theirs.
At the heart of these “disputed areas” is the strategic city of Kirkuk, which the disciplined and highly motivated Kurdish Peshmerga took over in mid-June, after Iraqi soldiers stationed there fled in fear of advancing jihadists. A charmless city of slightly less than one million people, Kirkuk betrays little of its past as an important Ottoman garrison town. The desolate ruin of an ancient citadel, sitting on a mound overlooking the dried-out Khasa River, is one of the few hints of the city’s earlier glory. Yet Kirkuk lies on top of one of Iraq’s largest oil fields, and with its crucial location directly adjacent to the Kurdish region, the city is the prize in the Kurds’ long journey to independence, a town they call their Jerusalem. When their Peshmerga fighters easily took over a few weeks ago, there was loud rejoicing throughout the Kurdish land.
But while the Kurds believe Kirkuk’s riches give them crucial economic foundations for a sustainable independent state, the city’s ethnic heterogeneity raises serious questions about their claims to it. Not only is Kirkuk’s population—as with that of many other Iraqi cities, including Baghdad itself—deeply intermixed. The disputed status of its vast oil field also stands as a major obstacle to any attempt to divide the country’s oil revenues equitably. To anyone who advocates dividing Iraq into neat ethnic and sectarian groups, Kirkuk shows just how challenging that would be in practice.
The definitive loss of Kirkuk and the giant oil field surrounding it could precipitate the breakup of Iraq, and while the present government in Baghdad is in no position to resist Kurdish control, a restrengthened leadership might, in the future, seek to retake the city by force. For the Kurds, the sudden territorial gains may also not be the panacea they seem to think they are. The Kurdish oil industry is still much in development, and if the Kurdish region loses access to Baghdad’s annual budget allocations without a ready alternative, it is likely to face a severe economic crisis. Moreover, the same jihadist insurgency that has enabled Kurdish advances in the disputed territories is also a potent new threat to the Kurds themselves. So the taking of Kirkuk poses an urgent question: how important is Iraq’s stability to the Kurds’ own security and long-term aims?
I first visited Kirkuk some twenty-three years ago, driving from Baghdad and entering from the west. Coming up from the capital in those days one had little doubt that one was in Arab areas all the way to the outskirts of Kirkuk, while the city itself, like many urban conglomerations in the wider region, was home to many different ethnic and religious groups, none of them dominant. There were Shia mixed in with Sunnis, and along with three major ethnicities—Arab, Kurdish, and Turkic—the city contained a smaller population of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, who claimed to be original inhabitants of what was known in ancient times as Arrapha. In fact, despite the Kurds’ strong presence in Kirkuk today, they were relatively late arrivals, having settled mostly in the years since the oil industry first took hold in the 1930s.
FULL ARTICLE (New York Times Review of Books)
Photo: Jorgen Nijman/flickr