April 27, 2008

Summer Kirkuk-Off

Dr. iRack took note of a good piece in the Christian Science Monitor on Kirkuk. The area has long been seen as a potential flashpoint for ethnic strife between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen--all of whom lay claim to the oil rich province. This opening to the article is telling:

Kirkuk provincial council head Rizgar Ali says one proof of the province's "Kurdishness" is in the maps.

Several maps dating from the Ottoman and British colonial eras hang on his office walls showing the city of Kirkuk at the heart of a Kurdistan that spans parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey. A 1957 map shows Kirkuk Province's original border prior to it being renamed Tamim and then altered by Saddam Hussein's Arabization policy.

But Ali Mahdi, a Turkmen leader here, has his own maps. His show the city of Kirkuk at the heart of Turkmeneli: the supposed home of Iraq's ethnic Turkmen population.

The vastly different ways that Iraq's ethnic groups view this province and its capital city, Kirkuk, illustrate the deep-rooted, complex, and potentially explosive issue of its status and the ongoing debate over Iraq's internal borders. In Kirkuk, the issue was supposed to have been decided by a constitutionally mandated referendum to take place by the end of 2007. The vote is delayed until June.

In the meantime the United States is using its leverage with all sides – Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs – to keep the situation from blowing up into an all-out war for control here as the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) works on a plan to broker a peaceful solution to the status of the province that is the home of northern Iraq's oil industry.

The UN has been given the task of finding a "technical" solution to the problem, seeking to find a rational bargain that will meet the minimal demands of all sides. The UN's strategy is to decompose the conflict into smaller issue areas, try to address more minor conflicts over water and commerce first and then build up to the big issues of establishing the boundaries and ownership of Kirkuk (i.e., is it part of Kurdish Regional Government [KRG] or governed from Baghdad). As one U.S. diplomat put it in the CSM piece: "If you start with some of the areas that are less controversial ... you might have some processes in place that have buy-in from all the sides involved, so you have an easier way of getting at ultimate resolution on the boundaries."

This is a worthwhile effort and it should continue to receive U.S. support. But the various sides are very far apart. The KRG is willing to have the UN broker a power-sharing arrangement within the province, but it desperately wants the city of Kirkuk to be annexed following a referendum on Kirkuk's status. Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, this was supposed to happen last year. The Kurds agreed to delay the vote, but they want it to happen by June and are committed to having Kirkuk's final status determined by the end of 2008. Many Arabs and Turkmen, and their allies in the Iraqi parliament, see things differently. They believe that the failure to hold the referendum in 2007 means that Article 140 has technically expired. They want Kirkuk declared a "special province" (governed from Baghdad) and advocate a 10 year breathing period before final status is determined. No way the Kurds go for that.

In bargaining theory, there is a concept called "lumpy" or "indivisible" goods. It's pretty easy to understand: if a good (say a city like Jerusalem or a province like Kosovo . . . or Kirkuk) cannot be divided in any way that is simultaneously amenable to all sides, there is no stable equilibrium/bargain that avoids conflict. Under this scenario the conflict will either be resolved "peacefully" through coercion by the stronger party (in this case, the Kurds) and acquiescence by weaker parties (in this case local Arabs and Turkmen), or violently if the weaker parties fail to recognize their weakness or otherwise irrationally choose to resist. We call that outcome war.

There are two scenarios for an escalating ethno-conflict over Kirkuk. The first scenario is a growing number of "bottom-up" clashes among locals that get out of control and encourage residents to turn toward extremists (including local Sunni Arabs turning to AQI) for protection. The second is a "top-down" clash between Baghdad and the Kurds over which entity is the legitimate governing authority over Kirkuk. The geopolitical consequences are significant too, since Turkey, who in recent months has been very willing to use military force against the PKK in northern Iraq, regularly hints that Kurdish control of Kirkuk (which they see as a stepping stone to Kurdish independence) is a red-line for them.

Iraq already has two or three wars going on: a lingering Sunni insurgency and terrorism campaign against the government; an inter-sectarian clash in the mixed core of Iraq; and an intra-sectarian Shia showdown in the south and parts of Baghdad. Adding an ethnic war to the mix is, let's just say, not helpful.

So let's hope the UN can find a solution.