Breaking Away

Serious trouble is brewing in Iraq’s one quiet corner: the Kurdish north.

With time, Arab Iraq is looking less and less like a country, and Kurdish Iraq is looking more and more like one. Since 2003, Kurdish negotiators have quietly compelled Baghdad to acknowledge the Kurdish parliament, ministries, and 100,000-strong peshmerga army—in effect, to let the Kurds be Kurds first and Iraqis second, if at all.

As a method for unmaking Iraq, patient political maneuvering has served the Kurds well—certainly better than the grisly carnival of fanaticism and killing that’s taken place throughout the rest of the country. But the stately drift of Kurdistan away from the rest of Iraq may be nearing its end. The problem is one of territory.

The official border of Iraq’s Kurdistan region roughly follows the outline of three Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya) populated almost exclusively by Kurds. But it contains almost none of the Kurdish-majority territory extending into the adjacent Nineveh, Tamim, and Diyala provinces. At least in theory, the Kurds have engineered a political answer to this problem: The Iraqi constitution stipulates that these provinces may vote on whether to join the Kurdish region, if at least 10 percent of the residents of each province petition to do so. At a minimum, it appears that Tamim—the province centered on Kirkuk, which sits atop more than enough oil to support an independent Kurdish state—will vote this year on whether to join Kurdistan.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Saddam Hussein forcibly removed thousands of Kurds from these disputed provinces. Arabs, generally from poor Shia areas in southern Iraq, replaced them, ensuring Arab domination of oil-rich areas. Since 2003, tens of thousands of Kurds have washed back in—especially into Tamim, where many live in shantytowns on Kirkuk’s outskirts, or in one of its soccer stadiums, which now houses hundreds. When the Iraqi constitution was being written in 2005, it was unclear whether returning Kurds would be permitted to vote in a referendum. In Tamim, it now looks certain that they will, and as a result Tamim will almost certainly tip Kurdish when the ballots are cast.

The redrawing of borders is seldom painless, and it is unlikely to proceed as quietly as other Kurdish steps toward independence—neither Sunnis nor Shia will react passively to a successful Kurdish referendum. The map to the right indicates the major flash points that could pit Kurd against Arab over land and oil. (The Iraqi constitution reserves existing oil fields for the central government, and the referendum in Tamim would not change that. But many observers look upon the enfeebled Baghdad government and believe that sanctioned Kurdish control of the lands above the oil would make the subsequent assertion of exclusive oil rights easier and more likely.)

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan and seize Kirkuk to prevent an economically viable Kurdish state just south of Turkey’s own restive Kurdish region. The threat is plausible—Turkish special forces have had a uniformed presence at a U.S. air base in Kirkuk, and more than 200,000 Turkish troops are deployed on the Kurdish border—but a Turkish invasion would also virtually guarantee insurrection and guerrilla warfare by Kurds in Turkey itself. In addition, Turkey would lose a valuable trade partner; Turkish firms have invested heavily in northern Iraq.

The Turkish threat is one reason many analysts doubt the Kurds will follow a legal territorial expansion with immediate secession. Still, timing is everything. If the Kurds wait too long to seek independence, their U.S. guarantors will have left, and Kurdistan will be completely at Turkey’s mercy. And even if the Kurds do not intend a decisive break now, the violence and animosity that may surround the upcoming referendum could change that sentiment. Kurdish politicians note, much to their satisfaction, that the gears of liberation can be powered by politics or by force, as the situation warrants—and moreover, that since 1991 they have never turned in reverse.

Click here to see a larger version of this map

Kirkuk. Kurds call Kirkuk the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” Unfortunately, it is also the Turkmen Jerusalem (Iraqi Turkmen constitute as much as a third of the population of this former Ottoman Turkish garrison town), and evidently the Jerusalem of some Iraqi Arabs as well: In early 2007, the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk decided to send the Arabs who had settled in Kirkuk during Saddam Hussein’s reign back to their hometowns in Arab Iraq (with thousands of dollars per family as compensation); Arab Kirkukis rioted at the decision, and some vowed to wage guerrilla war.

Tamim oil fields. About 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves are near Kirkuk. Legally, oil from these fields would still be controlled by Baghdad even if Tamim joins the Kurdistan region. But many Iraqis believe control of the land is a step toward the assertion of exclusive rights to the oil.

Hawija. Mostly unpopulated before the discovery of oil in the 1920s and ’30s, Hawija is a distinctly Arab city in a Kurdish-majority province. When Tamim province votes Kurdish, thousands of Arabs and Turkmen will end up as unwilling passengers on the Kurdish ride to independence. Rather than acquiesce to Kurdish suzerainty, fringe areas are likely to appeal for annexation by their Arab neighbors.

Sinjar. A historically Kurdish city, Sinjar lies far outside the current bounds of the Kurdistan region. The Kurds will demand formal control, though, because many Kurdish leaders’ families hail from here. (The Kurdistan Democratic Party currently administers the city, without Baghdad’s blessing.) Arabs counter that Sinjar has been a mixed city for some time, and they suspect that Kurds covet the oil between Sinjar and Dohuk.

Nineveh Plain. Kurds and Arabs each claim the Nineveh Plain, but its majority is Assyrian Christian. Muslim Arabs in Mosul and Baghdad have targeted this sect for annihilation; the Kurds have provided security to its adherents, but Assyrians worry that Kurdish generosity is a prelude to annexation—and a future of second-class citizenship.

Khanaqin. Saddam Hussein aggressively Arabized Khanaqin during the 1970s and ’80s. Kurdish guerrillas seized the town during the 2003 invasion, and they continue to govern it, shuttling residents back in to re-tip the balance toward a Kurdish majority. The Kurdish government has already sold oil-exploration concessions near Khanaqin to a Canadian company. The town also carries the prize of the Mundhiriya border crossing with Iran, a source of tax revenue.