Kirkuk’s Referendum Revives Fears of Ethnic Violence

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Last week, the Iraqi government called for the implementation of Article 140 of the country’s permanent constitution, which calls for the “normalization” of the situation in Kirkuk (Asharq al-Awsat, February 2). This gives Kurds the go-ahead to reverse Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” of Iraq’s fourth-largest city. To help the Kurds, a committee headed by Iraq’s justice minister said the government will give the estimated 150,000 Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk by Saddam $12,000 each to move back to their original homes (Azzaman, February 8). This move means that the planned November 15 referendum on the status of Kirkuk will almost certainly end in victory for the city’s majority Kurdish population who wishes to join the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.

The plans, however, were denounced by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army). “We vehemently reject this decision,” said Sheikh Raad al-Najafi, an Arab Shiite cleric from al-Sadr’s Kirkuk office. “We will not leave Kirkuk by force or without force. If they [Kurds] try to force us out of the city, then there will be dangerous reactions against them” (IRIN, February 8).

In the past, al-Sadr has sought to win over the mostly Shiite Arabs who were moved to the city by Saddam and the Shiite Turkmen who are native to Kirkuk. Together, these two groups make up around 35 percent of Kirkuk’s almost one million inhabitants. A revitalized alliance between al-Sadr and Kirkuk’s Shiites would risk further destabilizing a region that produces around half of Iraq’s oil exports. Kirkuk’s government and police are already regularly attacked by Sunni insurgents who carry out car-bombings, shootings and assassinations.

In 2004-2006, Jaish al-Mahdi and other Shiite groups tried to reach out to Kirkuk’s Shiites. For example, in early 2005 the Jaish al-Mahdi and the Dawa party sent contingents to join Turkmen demonstrating against Kurdish plans to make Kirkuk part of the Kurdish Autonomous Region (al-Jazeera, February 13). In April 2006, al-Sadr reportedly sent fighters and weapons to Kirkuk (Washington Post, April 25, 2006). As well as trying to expand his support base in Kirkuk, al-Sadr used the issue to paint himself as a nationalist opposed to the break-up of Iraq.

Yet, despite al-Sadr’s efforts, Kirkuk’s Shiites have largely avoided violence, preferring to contest Kurdish plans peacefully by forging deals with more mainstream Arab Shiite movements, holding demonstrations and, in the case of the Turkmen, boycotting elections. The leading Turkmen party, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), has also built strong links with the Turkish government. Having witnessed Kurdish expulsions of Arabs from Kirkuk, the Turkmen are probably reluctant to provoke the Kurds who view the incorporation of Kirkuk into Kurdistan as their overriding policy goal.

Although Shiite attacks against Kurds in Kirkuk are rare, a spate of attacks against leading Turkmen politicians indicates that tensions may be rising. Sadettin Ergec, leader of the ITF and its sole member in the Baghdad national parliament, has been the target of at least seven assassination attempts—the most recent on January 31 when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy outside Kirkuk as he traveled to attend a Shiite festival (Zaman, February 1). On February 7, a car bomb in Kirkuk also targeted the convoy of Yunus Bayraktar, ITF’s secretary-general, wounding him (The New Anatolian, February 9). It is possible that at least some of these attacks were carried out by Kurds—the ITF clashed with Kurdish parties well before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Alternatively, the attackers may have been Sunni Arabs who see the Shiite Turkmen as non-Muslims.

The Turkmen strategy, therefore, seems to be based on the realization that they are unable to resist the Kurds militarily (unless substantially aided by Turkey). Some Turkmen politicians may have recognized that allying with al-Sadr’s unstable movement would probably backfire. The fragmentation of al-Sadr’s movement and its increasing preoccupation with fighting Sunni Arabs in Baghdad appears to have made an alliance with the Turkmen increasingly unworkable.

The Kurds have already forced many Arabs to leave Kirkuk; remaining immigrants may gladly accept the government’s money and move south. At the same time, the Iraqi government’s ruling on Article 140 may point to a broader deal between Shiite and Kurdish leaders. Only weeks before the deal was announced, the Kurdish government took the unprecedented step of sending 4,000 Kurdish troops to Baghdad to help Nuri al-Maliki re-take control of the capital. If such a deal between the Kurds and the Shiites has been struck, then the explosive potential for violence in Kirkuk may have lessened.