A Possible Deal on Kirkuk?


WASHINGTON, Jun 4 (IPS) -- A possible breakthrough over the fate of the contentious Iraqi province of Kirkuk appears to be underway, which could be a significant source of relief for the United States as it is trying hard to stabilize the country.

On Tuesday, for the first time a top Kurdish official explicitly said Kurds are ready to break a stalemate that has been in place for years, if not decades, raising hopes the potential time bomb of Iraq could be defused.

"In Kirkuk, as Kurds, we are ready for power-sharing," Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency in Dubai.

"We are pushing for a solution, not especially a referendum. We have asked the U.N. to be technically involved because the situation is complicated," he said.

Barzani's remarks signal Kurds' new willingness to compromise over the oil-rich city after longtime resistance to any settlement other than a popular referendum. Because Kurds' numbers have grown hugely in Kirkuk since the end of 2003 war, Kurdish insistence on a referendum was interpreted by others as a desire to take over the city.

"It seems to be good news because [Kurdish leaders Maasoud] Barzani and [Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani have been under tremendous pressure from their base to pursue the maximum in various areas, including pieces of territory in Kirkuk and beyond," said Wayne White, who worked as head of State Department's Intelligence Team in Iraq from 2003 to 2005.

Under the Iraqi constitution, a referendum was to be held in Kirkuk late last year in which people would have voted on whether the province would join the Kurdistan region, remain under Baghdad's jurisdiction or be given special status as an independent region.

The referendum was not held, and the deadline was extended for another six months. It expires at the end of June, but it is highly unlikely to take place this month either due to tremendous opposition from various Iraqi groups, neighbouring countries and the U.S. Instead, the United Nations' special envoy to Iraq, Steffan de Mistura, has been tasked with seeking other possible solutions.

While the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies conduct operations to pacify the war-torn country, Kirkuk has long been flashing in the background as a likely point for the eruption of a civil war.

"The U.S. has been counseling restraint [on Kirkuk] because of the danger of upsetting the apple cart of increased security successes," White said.

Kurdish leaders have been in a dilemma for a long time in which they have found it extremely hard to make any major concession on Kirkuk, an issue with a deeply emotional dimension in contemporary Kurdish history. In 1975, the Kurds' autonomy arrangements with Baghdad broke up after Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, grandfather of Nechirvan Barzani, refused to back down on Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. That legacy has been very hard up to now for any Kurdish leader to move away from.

Although a concession on Kirkuk could erode the popularity of the two major Kurdish parties -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- among Iraq's Kurds and beyond, it can bring them some major gains as well.

Any such deal can improve Kurds' ties with Turkey, which has been indirectly threatening Kurds with military action if they take over Kirkuk. It could also convince the Iraqi government to make serious concessions toward Kurds, for instance, recognizing their controversial oil deals with foreign firms which Baghdad and Washington do not look upon favorably.

And it could improve the prospects of security for Kurdistan and establish trust with the neighboring communities of Sunni Arabs, Turkomans and Shias in Iraq.

The softened stance by Kurdish leaders was welcomed by the city's Turkomans, who have boycotted the Kirkuk provincial council for months. Like Kurds, Turkomans claim ownership of Kirkuk and some of their major political parties have been fiercely resisting an attachment of Kirkuk to the neighboring Kurdish region.

"The Turkomans received Barzani's statements with great optimism," Akram Tarzi, a Turkoman member of the Iraqi parliament from the bloc of young Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Voices of Iraq news agency. ''The Turkoman leadership realised that the Kirkuk cause will not be solved without understanding.''

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