Sherif Elgebeily: Kurdistan – armed conflict or peaceful settlement?

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Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (September 2009) Tags: Kurdistan armed conflict peaceful settlement Kurdish autonomy referendum negotiations borders disputed regions oil wealth Turkey PKK

Sherif Elgebeily

Sherif Elgebeily

Sherif Elgebeily (Washington DC, 1982) studies for a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law at the American University of Cairo. Moreover, he is political reporter at Nile TV.

In this interview, he discusses the tensions in Iraq’s Kurdistan. What explains the elevated conflict risks of Kurdistan? What would be the impact of a Kurdish referendum on autonomy and borders? And how can the international community help in finding a solution that is acceptable to both the Kurdish authorities and Iraq’s central government?

Armed conflict potential of Kurdish areas

What events could trigger a military confrontation between Kurds and Iraq’s national army?

The Kurdish regional parliament recently postponed a referendum on the subject of a new constitution, a decision helped in no small part by the involvement of the US. The amended constitution enshrines the rights claimed by Kurdish to Kirkuk, in addition to the disputed regions.

Naturally, the response from the Iraqi government in Baghdad was one of outrage; in their view such a constitution would not fail to be adopted and essentially legitimized the annexation of Iraqi provinces into a larger Iraqi Kurdistan. The rapid response of the US to this situation highlights the severity of the situation and potential for the fragile balance between the two governments to easily be overturned.

“Failure to reach an agreement on boundaries in Iraq often centres around the distribution of oil wealth, the aftermath of the Baathist ethnic cleansing and claims to ancient sacred and sentimentally held land.”

Underlying and deep-rooted tensions that flare up are significant for their potential to trigger military confrontations, such as that which all but took place in Khanaquin last year; on that occasion, the peshmerga barred the Iraqi forces from entry into their own territory and all-out confrontation was narrowly avoided.

Above all, however, it is vital to take into consideration the elements that are hidden beneath the surface; failure to reach an agreement on boundaries in Iraq often centres around the distribution of oil wealth, the aftermath of the Baathist ethnic cleansing and claims to ancient sacred and sentimentally held land.

Which factors explain the elevated conflict potential of the Kirkuk area?

“From the Iraqi perspective, at the heart of the debate is the issue of oil. Currently, the Kurds receive more revenue from the share of Iraqi oil production that the constitution entitles them to.”

As a result of the Arabization process of Saddam Hussein from the 1980s onwards, the regions formerly under control of the Kurds were placed under the control of the central Iraqi government, fuelling the sentiment since the fall of his regime that these provinces should be returned to the KRG.

From the Iraqi perspective, at the heart of the debate is the issue of oil. Currently, the Kurds receive more revenue from the share of Iraqi oil production that the constitution entitles them to. However, with the potential for huge unexplored oil reserves in Kirkuk, Kurdish control of the regions would unequivocally multiply any current oil income several-fold.

Peaceful settlement attempts

To what extent could a referendum about the borders of the federal region Kurdistan –as outlined in constitution- ease tensions between Kurds and national government?

“The Iraqi government and many ordinary Iraqi citizens see the Kurdish attempts to lay claim to areas outside of the 3 Iraqi Kurdish provinces as being a landgrab and some are opposed to the referendum.”

Many people would have anticipated that 6 months ago the tensions that existed had not been sufficiently resolved to allow for a referendum that would result in reliable and long-standing solutions. The KRG’s recent attempts to push through a referendum for a new constitution which would change the internal landscape both geographically and politically highlight this fact. The Iraqi government and many ordinary Iraqi citizens see the Kurdish attempts to lay claim to areas outside of the 3 Iraqi Kurdish provinces as being a landgrab and some are opposed to the referendum.

It is important to note that when the Iraqi Constitution was being drafted, the situation in Iraq was vastly different from today. A referendum would almost definitely prove problematic for the Iraqis, although this is enshrined in the constitution, and may even serve to heighten tensions without the resolution of issues that surround the referendum, such as hydrocarbon law.

How could the KRG and Iraq’s national government reduce the likelihood of a military confrontation?

“It would be far too simple to suggest that the solution is for the two sides to work together diplomatically; this time has passed.”

The potential for military confrontation between Iraqi central government and the KRG holds many ethnic, territorial and international factors at its root. The battle for Kirkuk, the hints of increased Kurdish autonomy or outright independence, PKK attacks and the relationship with Turkey are all examples of opportunities for increased rifts between the central government and the KRG.

It would be far too simple to suggest that the solution is for the two sides to work together diplomatically; this time has passed. Maliki and Barzani are no longer on speaking terms and the rhetoric used by both sides has increasingly escalated from bitter to threatening.

“The constitution should be at the heart of the resolution of all difficulties and it seems with the new amendments being pushed through by the Kurds, the tension is set to escalate.”

It is possible that left to their own devices, military confrontation could escalate to all-out war and for this reason, it would seem that there is a great deal of work to be done by the international community in ensuring that tensions remain, at the very worst, simmering. The constitution should be at the heart of the resolution of all difficulties and it seems with the new amendments being pushed through by the Kurds, the tension is set to escalate.

What can the international community (UN, US, neighbouring countries) do to ease tensions between Kurds and national government?

The United Nations, with the backing of the US, has already proposed a temporary solution to one of the most volatile issues, namely Kirkuk, which would see the region being given a special status and equal control (33%) for Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds with a 4% Christian input. However, it would seem that even such efforts have been rejected by both the Kurdish and Iraqi sides.

The role of the international community, however, is to persist in their negotiation and compromise attempts between the two sides with an eye to finding a solution acceptable to both sides. Although many might blame the current security issues in Iraq on the MNF-I, it cannot be said that the international community has not made concerted efforts to create opportunities for a peaceful settlement of the issues between the Kurds and the Iraqis.

The question, nevertheless, remains whether such efforts are realistically moving towards a resolution or if they are simply wasted within the framework of uncooperative leadership.

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