Monday, August 4, 2008

Once more into the breach

(Cross-posted from Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time.)

Remember what I said just over a week ago, how Kirkuk remains a potential "flashpoint for ethnic conflict?" Juan Cole brings the goods: First, he cites Reuters for Friday, which reports that Kurdish councilors

called for the city [of Kirkuk] to become part of the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan. ...

Thursday's decision by Kurdish councilors at a provincial council meeting was symbolic because other factions boycotted the session. The council's head, himself a Kurd, also noted the call was unconstitutional.

But tensions have been rising over the city's fate, with demonstrators taking to the streets several times this week.
One of those rallies, last Monday, was attacked by a suicide bomber. Some 23 people were killed.

The central Iraqi government rejected the councilors' call while urging calm:
"The Iraqi government calls upon all parties and groups in Kirkuk province to refrain from carrying out any [actions] that might harm the national unity," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement. "The Iraqi government is stressing its [opposition to] any unilateral measure to change the status of Kirkuk."
Kurds regard Kirkuk as their historical capital and demand that it become part of the largely-autonomous Kurdish region. Besides the central government, which among its other concerns likely numbers the prospect losing direct control over the oil-rich region of which Kirkuk is part, Turkey is also watching warily: For its own internal reasons, Turkey fears any strengthening of Kurdish interests and expressed "anxiety" over the proposal.

But the real source of potential conflict comes from a third source: The non-Kurd residents of Kirkuk, particularly the Turkmen (also Turkomen), who also regard Kirkuk as home and fear ethnic oppression if the city becomes part of Kurdistan. This is something I first brought up over four years ago. Over a year ago, I noted that the leader of a Turkmen group in Kirkuk said "all the Turkmens will become suicide bombers to defend the Turkmen identity" of the city.

The intensity of that feeling remains, as evidenced by an interview with Narmin Al-Mufti, an official of the Turkoman Front, published in the Kurdish newspaper Chawder. Juan Cole posted the translation done by the US federal government's Open Source Center.

In the interview, Mufti called the Kurdistan Regional Government "not a lawful region but an internal administration." That is, the Front accepts the Kurdish area as an administrative region but does not accept autonomy, charging it is contrary to the Iraqi constitution. In fact, he said they do not recognize the constitution itself
because it has been forced upon us without our agreement. We prefer and recognize the older constitution, which contained 39 articles and did not contain Article 140,
which relates to the future of Kirkuk.

He also said the Turkoman Front does "not believe the Kurdish leadership," who "are only concerned about, and work for, their own interests" and that
[t]he Turkoman Front does not agree with elections, because balloting would be in the interest of the Kurdish political parties and they are always carrying out vote fraud.
Fraud such as, he charged, moving hundreds of thousands of "non-residents" to Kirkuk to affect potential elections. Kick those non-residents out, he said, and the Front could accept elections, because then "the Turkomans would have the majority vote in Kirkuk."

"I want to tell the Kurdish leadership," he concluded, "that we would rather be part of China than Kurdistan." The Kurds, every bit as determined on the matter, would probably be willing to grant that wish.

The chance of any short-term breakthrough on this impasse seems unlikely, especially considering that
Iraqi parliamentarians failed on Sunday to pass a law on provincial elections, putting the date of important polls in doubt and leaving unresolved a political standoff that has stoked ethnic tensions[, Reuters reports].

After struggling for hours to reach a quorum, lawmakers indefinitely postponed a special session they had called to pass the law, which has come unstuck over plans for the disputed northern city of Kirkuk and angered minority Kurds.
Still, hope springs eternal and all that.
Lawmakers did not say when they would reschedule the debate, but political leaders continued meetings to seek a compromise. ...

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said a compromise was close at hand and parliament would hold another vote when faction leaders signal they have reached a deal.

"We are waiting for the white smoke to rise," he said.
The trouble is, when we see the smoke rising, will it mean what Othman wants it to mean? Or will it signify a heat that is starting to do more than just smolder? Or even an impending explosion?