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Op-Ed: Kirkuk May Be Key to Kurdish-Iraqi Reconciliation

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The op-ed below was written by Michael Knights, the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It originally appeared in Al Jazeera, and an excerpt can be read below.


Iraq’s Kirkuk province has long been identified as a fulcrum for political and ethnic tensions, and is currently central to five interlocking sets of conflicts with the potential to make or break national reconciliation efforts between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

The Fight Against ISIS

The first is the fight against the self-declared Islamic State terrorist group, which has been largely static along the Kurdish front line for many months.

The U.S.-led coalition now needs to generate a new northern front against ISIL that fuses together Sunni Arab paramilitaries with Kurdish and international support. Kirkuk is the launchpad for operations against the adjacent ISIS positions in Hawija.

Oil in Kirkuk

The second conflict coming to a head in Kirkuk is the debate between the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over oil sales.

The KRG extracts around 180,000 – 240,000 barrels a day of oil from fields in Kirkuk. These volumes are critical to the Kurdish region’s new effort at economic independence from Baghdad.

Political Decentralization

Kirkuk is also the cockpit of administrative decentralization debates between the federal government and the Kirkuk province.

Thanks to Kirkuk’s dynamic governor, Dr. Najmaldin Karim, Kirkuk probably has the most assertive local government in Iraq. Karim is striving to limit and balance the involvement of federal and KRG agencies in local affairs.

Outstanding Loans

Fiscal decentralization of Kirkuk is another point of dissent between Baghdad and the provincial governor, Karim. Kirkuk is owed over $1.37 billion for 2014 and 2015 regional development funds and “petrodollar” royalties that the Iraqi federal government budgets for oil-producing provinces.

Of the $1.57 billion, the province has only received $197m in the last two years. In the first half of 2015, only $12 million has arrived to support projects in a province with 1.5 million inhabitants and a staggering 600,000 displaced persons.

KRG Presidential Elections

The controversial subject of KRG independence could represent a fifth and final conflict in which Kirkuk will play a critical role.

In the midst of the Kurdish region’s crisis over presidential powers, the main Kurdish parties disagree over what role Kirkuk might play in future voting and referendums: Should Kurds from Kirkuk vote in KRG presidential elections, potentially benefitting the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)?

When should Kirkuk be asked if it wants to accede to the KRG – again, potentially tipping the balance towards the PUK and away from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)? Or would a narrow referendum result to join the KRG inflame ethnic tensions in Kirkuk for decades to come?

Cooperating, For a Fee

The fact is that either side – Baghdad or the KRG – could today buy Kirkuk’s gratitude and loyalty if they were willing to stand up and commit as little as $100 million in interim funding.

In a telling signpost that both Baghdad and the KRG are politically and economically broken, one of Iraq’s most strategic provinces is up for grabs and neither side can mobilize the leaders or the resources to reach out and help Kirkuk.

[To Read More, Visit Al Jazeera]

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