12/31/2009, 00.00
IRAQ
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Nouri al-Maliki and the conundrum of Kirkuk

by Layla Yousif Rahema
The forthcoming visit of Prime Minister to Kurdistan is hope for a reconciliation with Baghdad. But Kirkuk, which owns 25% of Iraqi oil, is in the sights of Arabs and Turkmen. Iran fears a Kurdish state power, the U.S. fear a conflagration that could delay their departure from Iraq in 2011.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is due to visit the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan to sign an agreement with President Massoud Barzani on the future of the Kurdish peshmerga militia. The news was anticipated by the agency Aswat al-Iraq, without setting a specific date. Under the agreement, the Baghdad government will recognize the peshmerga in exchange for the government in Erbil to deliver the revenues derived from taxes and duties detained so far in its coffers. As a result, salaries and pensions of 90 thousand militiamen, the primary burden of the Kurdish government, becomes the responsibility of the central government.    

 
Is Maliki's trip a political move to divert attention from the recent bombings in Baghdad and create new alliances with the eternal enemies of the north ahead of elections next March? Or is it the result of strong U.S. pressure for the implementation of Art. 140 of the Iraqi constitution that calls for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk to determine if its inhabitants want to remain under the government of Baghdad or Erbil?    
 
Kurdistan already holds between l0% and 15% of oil reserves in the country. Kirkuk alone has around 25%. If the city were to fall into the hands of the Kurds, Erbil would control roughly 40% of the deposits of all of Iraq. Unacceptable to the Arabs and Turkmen who claim it for themselves, but also for Syria, Iran and Turkey, fearful that a strong Kurdistan, territorially and economically, would inflame the Kurdish demands to annex the communities within them.    
 
Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, observers have viewed Kirkuk as the possible fuse that could ignite a civil war. This is why the referendum was always postponed and the relations between Maliki and the Kurdish authorities have started to oscillate between tension and cooperation.    
 
Two years of haggling    
 
Maliki began to woo the Kurds in 2007, after losing his major Sunni and Shiite allies, promising compliance with Article. 140 and the "normalization" of Kirkuk, which saw the forced relocation of about 12 thousand Iraqi Arab families settled by Saddam in the town as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the 80s. Standardization is the necessary precondition to the implementation of the referendum. These promises have ensured the survival of Maliki's cabinet when the Sadrists, Iraqi National List and Iraqi Accordance Front broke with him. But the premier disillusioned expectations: he continuously postponed the referendum and in mid-2007 did nothing to prevent attacks against Turkish bases of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Kurdistan.    
 
As a result, improving the security situation in Iraq has removed many of the excuses for delaying the normalization process and Kurdish politicians have begun to suspect that Maliki intended to use the growing power of central government to thwart hard won gains by the Kurds after the American invasion, when the Baghdad government was weak.    
 
The enmity between the two leaders is such that al-Maliki and Barzani rarely speak. Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga have clashed repeatedly in disputed areas, forcing officials of the United States to mediate to avoid an escalation.    
 
Today, the Iraqi prime minister has more than ever, need of strong political support: a probable success in the upcoming elections has been made more difficult after the bloody attacks in August, October and December. The Obama administration is also much more determined than the Bush administration was to resolve the matter of Kirkuk. An escalation of tension between Arabs and Kurds, in fact, could delay the completion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces, expected by 2011. The Vice-President Joe Biden is pushing for an amicable solution between the parties that claim Kirkuk. But to offset U.S. pressure are those in Tehran, totally opposed to concessions to Kurdistan and very influential on Maliki. He, therefore, may be aiming to reach an agreement with Erbil, hoping once again that small temporary concessions will help him to postpone again the referendum. At least until his re-election in March.    
 
Thus, while the other security challenges are becoming more manageable, the Arab-Kurd divide in Kirkuk has become increasingly dangerous. This could make the relative stability of Kirkuk, a thing of the past.  
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