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Kirkuk and the Kurdish referendum

After the announcement of the date for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum, the debate has shifted to the provinces it will cover. Kurds claim Kirkuk is a Kurdish province whose ethnic composition was altered under the Baath regime since 1968 by expelling Kurds and bringing in Arabs. They believe that for this reason, the referendum should include Kirkuk.

The provinces recognized by Baghdad as part of Iraqi Kurdistan are Erbil, Dahuk, Halabja and Sulaimanieh, but Kurds have extended their control to Kirkuk, Nineweh, Salahaddin and Diyalah provinces, which Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution considers “disputed areas.”

Kirkuk has to be singled out because it is multiethnic and oil-rich. A plebiscite was scheduled for Nov. 15, 2007, to determine whether the entirety of Kirkuk and various parts of Nineweh, Diyalah and Salahaddin claimed by Kurds would wish to become part of Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan. Like the independence referendum, the plebiscite was postponed several times.

First, the US pressured the Kurds and Baghdad to postpone it because it did not want further instability. Second, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was worried that its position could be weakened by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is the second-biggest political party in Iraqi Kurdistan and very strong in Kirkuk. Third, Baghdad was worried that it could lose Kirkuk. Fourth, Turkmen were worried about Iraqi Kurdistan getting more oil revenue.

According to the Iraqi censuses of 1957, 1977 and 1997, Kurds were the biggest community in Kirkuk before Arabization started, but they did not constitute the majority of the population. Even if a plebiscite were held today, it will be difficult to determine whether a person is an original inhabitant of Kirkuk or settled there later.

According to the Iraqi censuses of 1957, 1977 and 1997, Kurds were the biggest community in Kirkuk before Arabization started, but they did not constitute the majority of the population. 

Yasar Yakis

In the run-up to the 2005 constitutional referendum, Turkish media reported that Kurds set the land and population registry offices in Kirkuk on fire to erase the previous demographic breakdown. They also reportedly brought truckloads of Kurds from northern mountain villages, claiming they were originally from Kirkuk but expelled. Two-hundred families gave as their former address in Kirkuk a house with two rooms.

The second reason for the province’s importance is its oil wealth. Iraqi Kurdistan has huge oil and gas reserves that are likely to increase substantially with further exploration, but huge investments are required. Kirkuk, which is already an oil-producing and exporting province, has the potential to contribute to solving this problem.

There are currently two oil pipelines from Kirkuk to the Turkish Mediterranean harbor of Iskenderun, with a total capacity of 1.4 million barrels per day. But we do not know whether Turkey will change its anti-referendum position and let an independent Iraqi Kurdistan use the pipelines without Baghdad’s consent.

There are also issues of widespread nepotism and lack of good governance in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and lack of support from major players such as Turkey, Iran and the US.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).