An agreement reached on December 2 in Kirkuk between Kurdish and Arab councilmen will end a year-long political boycott by Sunni Arabs in favor of greater power-sharing in the governorate. The Sunnis have long been unable to find political footing in Iraq since the fall of Saddam, holding only six out of the 41 total seats within the council due to calls across Iraq for the Sunni boycott of the 2005 provincial elections—perhaps a call they now regret making.
In November 2006, Sunni lawmakers decided to walk out on the Kirkuk provincial council, citing marginalization and discrimination from Kurdish interests as their reason. As one Sunni lawmaker recalls, “last year, we felt that decisions were forced on us. That wasn’t power-sharing—we had no key representation” (AP, December 4). In coordination with the Arab counterpart, the Turkmen list also decided to walk out and join the boycott against what they believed to be Kurdish discrimination (Awsat al-Iraq, September 11). After a year of behind-the-scenes negotiations spearheaded by U.S. diplomats, the Sunnis decided to re-enter the governorate and its political process.
The accord, in agreement with only the Kurdish bloc, distributes one-third of government positions, including posts within the police, to Arabs. The Kurdish parties also agreed to appoint an Arab deputy governor in the hope that the Sunnis would retake their seats at the council. Leaving the Turkmen behind, the Sunnis decided to come on board with the Kurds in an effort to increase their political influence. Rakan Saeed al-Juburi, an Arab provincial lawmaker, explained: “We will get, for the first time, the post of Kirkuk’s deputy governor and the deputy head of the judiciary council. Posts will be distributed equally—32 percent each for Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and the remaining four percent for the Chaldo-Assyrian, Armenian and Sahiah minorities” (PUK Online, December 5). The Turkmen rejected the offer by the Kurds and are still continuing their boycott. One Turkmen official declared that Kirkuk’s problems “cannot be resolved by compensating one side while marginalizing another” (PUK Online, December 5). Ali Mahdi, the deputy leader of the Turkmen Eli party, suggests further claims on the part of the Kurds are needed: “We have demanded an end to the arrest and marginalization of Turkmen and the need to adopt the Turkmen language officially in Kirkuk, but there has been no response” (PUK Online, December 5).Though being the smallest of the main ethnic groups, the Turkmen hold 9 seats, compared to the 26 of the Kurdish bloc.
Kirkuk, a city of about one million, has a history of ethnic tension. Inhabited by a mixture of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, with a small Chaldo-Assyrian minority, Kirkuk is the hub of one of Iraq’s largest oil reserves, a prize desired by all parties. In an effort to marginalize Kurdish power and claim Kirkuk after the failures of the autonomy agreements of the 1970s, the Iraqi government forced the relocation of 600,000 ethnic Kurds out of the city, replacing them with Arabs—a process known as Arabization. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has worked to return families back to Kirkuk in order to re-populate the city with Kurds. Under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, a decision shall be reached by the end of 2007 on whether Kirkuk will be under control of the KRG or will continue under Baghdad’s authority. Though Iraqi officials have stated the deadline on Kirkuk is unworkable, hopes remain that a decision will come in 2008. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte recently said, “it is my understanding that an effort will be made in the new year to get a process going forward that deals with article 140 of the Constitution and the issue of Kirkuk” (Al-Manar TV, December 10).
Though the Kurdish-Sunni accord is a first and positive step toward reconciliation in Kirkuk, the survival of the agreement is very much dependent on other broad factors, such as the looming Kirkuk “normalization” process, a stage of action under Article 140 that calls for a reversal of the population movements ordered by Saddam Hussein. The Sunnis are most likely to gain seats in the provincial council at the expense of the Kurdish and Turkmen lists if and when another election is held, leading to a reshaping of the power structure within the governorate. Kirkuk may be essential for the unspoken desire to establish a Kurdish independent state, but there is strong opposition to Kurdish sovereignty from Turkey, as well as Iran, Syria, and the Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Iraq. As the normalization process continues into next year, the broader aspects of the political battle are likely to seep into the delicately reconciled provincial council, re-inviting tension and mistrust. Each political move taken in Kirkuk will be viewed with a great deal of suspicion on all sides, hindering any real progress or reconciliation efforts.