Terrorist attacks are increasing as the deadline approaches to hold a referendum on whether oil-rich Kirkuk will become part of the autonomous Kurdish region. As displaced Kurds seek to return to the city, reports Susan Mohammad, many Iraqi Arabs are getting out
Susan Mohammad, The Ottawa CitizenPublished: Sunday, November 04, 2007
KIRKUK, Iraq - Outside of Baghdad, few places in Iraq are more crucial than the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk in determining whether reconciliation and the ballot box will win out over the brute force of extremist violence.
Although Kirkuk has been fought over since oil was discovered there nearly a century ago, the next few months will be the most critical in the city's history. They may also be the bloodiest.
A referendum to decide whether Kirkuk will become part of the Kurdistan Region surrounding it must be held by the end of 2007, according to Article 140 of the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution. The possibility that the Kurdish government will inherit Kirkuk from the central government in Baghdad -- and with it, Iraq's second largest oil-producing region -- has activated extremist groups bent on stopping the referendum from taking place.
Smoke billows from where an Iraqi pipeline was set ablaze in 2005 west of Kirkuk, Iraq's second largest oil-producing region. Oil -- discovered here nearly a century ago -- is at the centre of the increasingly violent dispute over Kirkuk.
Marwan Ibrahim, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images
On July 16, suicide bombs exploded within 20 minutes of each other in the deadliest terror attack in the city since the U.S. invasion. At least 80 people were killed and 150 were wounded. One of the bombs targeted a Kurdish political office while the other claimed civilian lives in an outdoor market.
This month, a car bomb targeting the traffic police chief of Kirkuk killed at least seven people and wounded 50 others.
Citizens of the demoralized city, which has significant Arab and Turkmen as well as Kurdish populations, are bracing for more terror attacks.
Although most people of Kirkuk are against the violence, most of Kirkuk's Arab population opposes the Kurds claiming the city as their own, while the Turkmen are divided on the issue. The Kurds say Kirkuk has always belonged to them, despite an aggressive campaign carried out by Saddam Hussein to Arabize the city by kicking tens of thousands of Kurdish and Turkmen families off their land. The ejected families were moved into heavily monitored settlement camps all over northern Iraq, while Arab families were encouraged to move north to increase the amount of control the central government had over Kirkuk's oil.
The situation in Kirkuk is as complex as ethnic rivalries in Iraq are deep. But one thing is certain: For ethnic Kurds in Iraq, who have fought 80 years to establish their own country, winning control of Kirkuk's oil would hand them the resources to create a viable nation.
Meanwhile, Kirkuk teeters on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Kurdish families who have been homeless for almost 20 years have been flooding back since Saddam was ousted in 2003. The pace of immigration has increased sharply in anticipation of the referendum even though there's no place to house these families and few services to aid in resettlement.
What's more, implementation of Article 140 is severely behind schedule. It's a complicated plan that is supposed to happen in three stages.
First, Kirkuk and its surrounding areas must go through a "normalization" process whereby the Kurd and Turkmen families that were ejected in the 1970s and '80s are allowed to return. Every family that returns to the city will be given 10 million Iraqi dinars, (about $8,000). Families returning to the countryside will be given half that. Arab families who were moved to Kirkuk during the Arabization campaign can voluntarily return to southern Iraq. As an incentive, each family that does so will be given 20 million dinars (about $16,000).