"There are five or six issues on which I will not compromise", Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, recently told one of his confidants: "Identity, borders, peshmergas, budget, the oil law and Kirkuk".
Of all these issues, Kirkuk is the most explosive, and the most elusive. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, inspired by article 58 of the Transitory Administrative Law (TAL) and approved by a popular referendum on October 15, 2005, stipulates that a referendum should be organised in the disputed territories before the end of December 2007.
The referendum is the last phase of a complex process which includes several phases aiming at reversing steps taken by the Baath Revolutionary Command Council (RCC): the deportation of Kurdish and Turkmen families from Kirkuk, coupled with the transplantation of Arab families, mainly from the South of Iraq (within the framework of a campaign of Arabisation which extended over several decades);the alteration of the administrative map of the region (the districts of Chemchemal, Kifri, Tuz Kurmatu, Kalar were arbitrarily detached from the governorate of Kirkuk and attached to Souleimania and other governorates).
After months of procrastination under the previous governments, in July 2006 Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki committed himself to normalising the situation, with the creation of a normalisation commission allocating a budget of $200m, to implement the following timetable: March 2007, modification of the administrative map; July 2007, organisation of a census. And December 2007, the referendum.
It is clear to all that this timetable is not going to be fulfilled. The "normalisation commission" established by Nouri al Maliki and chaired by justice minister Hashim Al Sibli is no more efficient than the previous one chaired by Hamid Majid Moussa. For one thing, the commission has not had a chairman since Hashim Alm Sibli resigned, in March. It remains unclear whether more than a few million dollars have indeed been transferred to the commission's bank account. Mohammed Ihsan, minister of "extra-regional affairs" (disputed territories) of the Kurdish government and member of the normalisation commission, claims that the commission is working, that the resignation of its president is "not an issue", and that 16.000 Arabs have registered in Kirkuk to go back South, while 48.000 Kurdish families have registered to return to Kirkuk. "We are going to give money ($15.000 per family) to the Arabs before the Kurds", adds Mohammed Ihsan, acknowledging that no money has been given so far, and that no Arab families have yet left Kirkuk within the framework of the normalisation process.
It is all the more significant that the old map of the administrative borders of the Kirkuk governorate was not restored last March. The reintegration of the districts of Chemchemal, Kalar, Kifri and Tuz Khurmatu into the governorate of Kirkuk is at the same time an easy step, as Fuad Hussein, Masoud Barzani's spokesman, explains, and a highly political one: "It does not take time to cancel a RCC decision.There is no need for parliament to debate it. This measure should be decided by the Presidency -- the president of the republic, Jalal Talabani, and the two vice-presidents, Tariq al Hashemi, and Adil Abdul Mahdi. But each one has a veto right, and if one says "No", it's over". The fact these three statesmen cannot agree and reach a decision on an issue which is inscribed in the constitution says a lot about the inner workings of the present Iraqi regime.
July went by without any sign of preparation of the census to register the people qualified to vote at the next referendum. Kurdish officials tend to minimize this delay, saying that after all they have the lists of the people who voted at the first elections (30 January 2005), at the referendum on the constitution (15 October 2005, and at the second elections (15 December 2005). They say they only need to register the new voters, people who have since become over 18 year-old, and the newcomers.
This apparent lethargy masks deep worries and divisions among the Kurdish leaders, intensified by the knowledge that their options are limited. Against all evidence, Mohammed Ihsan, minister of extra-regional affairs in Nechirvan Barzani's government, maintains that "the referendum will take place, definitely". Asked whether he believes the referendum can still take place before the end of 2007, Adnan Mufti, member of the PUK leadership and speaker of the Kurdish parliament, answers after a long silence, saying finally "I am not going to answer this question if you are going to quote me". Saadi Pira, also a member of the PUK leadership, is more direct: "Technically, it is not possible to organise the referendum within the agreed time frame, for security reasons, because of delays in payments by the Iraqi government, and of problems in the registration of the transfers of residence".
While refusing to consider the possibility that the referendum will not take place on time, some Kurdish politicians, like Dr Mahmoud Osman, an independent member of the Iraqi parliament, or Saadi Pira, and Safin Dizaye, KDP spokesman, are ready to consider extending the deadline by a few months -- three-to- six months at the most -- if there are clear signs that decisions are taken during these months. "To postpone for one year and do nothing would be very bad", says Saadi Pira. "It would lead to disaster", confirms Fuad Hussein.
Kurdish officials in Erbil know who the opponents to the implementation of article 140 are. "It is not like in the 1970s, when Saddam Hussein indefinitely postponed the referendum included in the March 1970 agreement", claims Adnan Mufti, "now there is no dictatorship in Bagdad, it is possible to discuss and to put forward our demands But we face the opposition of ex-Baathists, some members of the Turkmen front, and of some Shiahs.. And, of course, the main problem is the opposition of Turkey and of the Arab countries".
More pessimistic, Nouri Talabani, an independent member of the Kurdish parliament, says "the Arabs were forced to accept the compromise of article 140, but except for a few liberals and leftists, they do not believe in this compromise, and they have no intention of implementing it". Fuad Hussein, although he speaks officially as the spokesman of Masoud Barzani, nevertheless blames "people who are in the government and are opposed to article 140, and who do not say it openly but invoke technical reasons".
Asked what their options are if the referendum does not take place before the end of 2007, Kurdish officials are clearly reluctant to discuss this issue. Adnan Mufti answers that he does "not want to put forward our options for the others to choose". Fuad Hussein says that if it comes to that, the Kurds can withdraw their ministers from the government. "And it we withdraw, the government collapses".
Off the record, some Kurdish officials say the Kurds would have no other alternative but to storm Kirkuk. "Should we repeat the KDP coup of August 31, 1996?" says a PUK official, alluding to the events of 1996 when Masoud Barzani reclaimed Erbil with the help of the Iraqi army. But these Kurdish officials know that such a move, unless it is supported by the US, could risk provoking unpredictable reactions from Turkey and Iran. "If the Americans allow us to secure Kirkuk and Mossoul, we do it quickly", says on the record Fuad Hussein. But it is a big "if" . And for the time being, the Americans are not sending any positive signal to the Kurds. "When we ask the US what they think about the attitude of the Bagdad government, they answer "we do not interfere", says a disillusioned Dr Mahmoud Osman, adding " they fought the war, they have been occupying the country for four years, but they say "they do not interfere" (laughing) It means they do not oppose Baghdad's behaviour".
The truth is that the Kurds have few cards. The Kurdish leaders are convinced that Nouri al Maliki is the best prime minister they can have. "We are partners", says Mohammed Ihsan, "we are in the same boat, and if anything happens to them, we are in real trouble".
For many Kurds, who speak more openly than their leaders, the battle for Kirkuk is lost. "If the referendum does not occur before the end of 2007, it will never happen", says Nuri Talabani, "because the situation is going to be more and more complex, and the pressures will increase".
Ferhad Pirbal, a university professor and an intellectual who made his name in Kurdistan by not being afraid of expressing non politically correct opinions, is not the only one to think that the Kurds can finally benefit from Baghdad's policy of "delaying and deleting" the referendum.
"Like previous ones, the present government in Baghdad is playing with this issue. Just like between 1970 and 1974 Ahmed Hassan al Bakr tried three times to kill general Barzani. and cancelled the referendum". "One should not be afraid of saying this", adds Ferhad Pirbal during an interview in the garden of the Erbil writers' club, "it is not being racist, it is not being chauvinistic -- they are chauvinistic. There will be an abyss between the Arabs and the Kurds. I am happy that the Arabs betray us. I can tell the people: "This is what the Arabs who claim they are democrats are doing to the Kurds". They do not want us to live together in a unified Iraq".
(The Middle East magazine, November 2007)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2012