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Studies 22 February, 2015

Prescription for Power-sharing in Contested Kirkuk

Introduction

Kirkuk is an oil-rich city. Today, it is the epicentre of an area where control is hotly contested. The city can be seen as a microcosm of Iraq, and is known throughout the region for its distinctive ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. The city’s diverse ethnic groups include Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Assyro-Chaldeans and Jews, all of who have lived peacefully together for centuries. However, the status of the city in terms of both administration and governance remains unsettled, endangering peaceful coexistence. This is doubly problematic, since Kirkuk plays an important role in national politics, and any threat to its diversity would impact on the diversity of the whole country. Thus, looking at a solution for Kirkuk can simultaneously be seen as finding a solution for the country as a whole, since creating a mechanism that will safeguard the mosaic of the city can also be used on a national scale.

This paper will begin by looking at the question of Kirkuk and why it presents an interesting case study. It will investigate the city's local and regional role, as well as the stakeholders in any solution. The first point of concern is Kirkuk’s unresolved governance status. Until a viable model is settled on, the sustainability of both the city and Iraq as a whole remain uncertain. While there are different institutional mechanisms for managing conflict in deeply divided places,[1] none have been formally adopted in Kirkuk. The decision about which model to support is difficult, since different institutional choices favour or disadvantage one group over another, and each has distinct consequences in particular for divided societies. Examining the particular case of consociational democracy, this paper aims to test whether it is an appropriate institutional mechanism for managing conflict and building a stable government in Kirkuk, and in Iraq more broadly.

For a long time, Kirkuk, and the question of its status, has been seen as a threat to the integrity of Iraq; an area that could, if it broke away from the national framework, endanger the country’s fragile stability. This has been noted repeatedly by scholars and researchers. Anderson and Stansfield went so far as to say that “it is no exaggeration to assert that the future of Iraq hinges on finding a resolution to the problem of Kirkuk’s status,”[2] while Sevim claimed that “Kirkuk is the last castle for the Baghdad government for the protection of Iraqi territorial integrity and the high-energy capacity of the country.”[3] Kirkuk is frequently cited by the media as a “flash-point,” “tinderbox,” or “powder-keg,” with journalists anticipating a four-way fight between the Kurds, Turkmens, Sunni Arabs, and Shia Arabs (Christians are usually ignored as a minority too small to have any effective military impact).[4] Thus any solution to the future status and governance of Kirkuk is likely to have a positive influence on the political process in Iraq as a whole.

A suitable model of governance, however, would have to take into account the region’s many stakeholders. This becomes a complex process, mostly due to the city’s vast quantity of oil. Given its wealth, regional states fear that if Kirkuk were incorporated into the region of Kurdistan, the Kurds would shortly thereafter declare their independence. If this were to happen, Turkey, Syria and Iran would face problems with their own Kurdish populations, who they believe would then push for greater autonomy.[5] The issue of Kirkuk is thus not confined to Iraq’s internal politics, but given its significant influence as a security threat to the region, chances in Kirkuk could affect regional politics as well. Thus, regional security is also a factor to consider when looking for a solution in the city. Set within this national and regional context, however, is a network of power systems and relationships within the city itself. 

With the scene set for the political sphere in which Kirkuk is being negotiated, the next section will turn to the inner workings of the city, and to the many groups that claim ownership. Following a close look at the city, a third section will examine the consociation as a possible form of government, finally offering some conclusions about the feasibility and ramifications of such a system. 

 

The Complexity of Kirkuk

Kirkuk is recognized for its distinctive history that includes centuries of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity.[6] This has gained the city its reputation as a cultural and cosmopolitan urban center. Today it is home to four communities: Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians, and each proclaims the city as its own. The relative size of its ethnic groups can only be estimated, as no reliable figures have been generated since the 1957 census. Estimates put the total population of the governorate at close to 1.5 million, with between 800,000[7] and 900,000[8] living in the city itself. Given the uncertainty of the statistics, it is hard to be precise about the relative size of each community. However, the results of the 2005 and 2009 elections indicate that the Kurds have either a large plurality or small majority, compared to the Arab and Turkish populations which both make up significant minorities.[9] What can be said, is that the creation of the state of Iraq by the British in 1921, that rearranged regional power politics, critically undermined centuries of peaceful coexistence. The balance of power in the city was then further and fundamentally changed after the discovery of oil in the city in 1927. 

It was when Kirkuk became the centre of Iraq’s oil industry that the first phase of its Arabization began, initiated by the new Iraqi government. Arabization –a deliberate political process that sought to change non-Arab cultural identity— was undertaken by various Iraqi governments for nearly seventy-five years. The Kurds and Turkmen of the city became the policy’s main victims. It is partly due to the efforts at privileging Arab culture above other groups in the city that Kirkuk is not just a divided place, but also became polarized around both ethnicity and religion. As such, the city falls well within the definition of a polarized urban center, where “two or more ethnically conscious groups—divided by religion, language, and/or culture and perceived history—coexist in a situation where neither group is willing to concede supremacy to the other.”[10] Indeed, it was ethnopolitics that was behind the very process of Arabization, as Letayf argues, and was deliberately designed by Baghdad to offset the ethnic balance in Kirkuk.[11] This process went alongside the gerrymandering of the governorate’s borders, which saw four Kurdish districts detached from Kirkuk in order to shrink the size of the Kurdish population in the area.[12] This resulted in ethnic composition change in Kirkuk and reduced its geographical size from 20,000 km2 in the 1930s, to 9,679 km2 today, roughly half its previous size.[13]

 

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