Map copyright National Geographic
ERBIL, IRAQ — Iraq may not survive in one piece. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds are packing their bags. Most have already said goodbye. Erbil (Hawler in Kurdish) is the capital of the de-facto sovereign Kurdistan Regional Government. Baghdad is thought of as the capital of a deranged foreign country.
In January 2005 the Iraqi Kurds held an informal referendum. More than 80 percent turned out to vote. 98.7 percent of those voted to secede from Iraq. Not only have the Kurds long dreamed of independence, when they look south they see only Islamism, Baathism, blood, fire, and mayhem.
If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the new post-imperial and post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. They call the W.C. (the “water closet,” i.e. the toilet) “Winston Churchill.” Several times when my translator needed a bathroom break he said “I need to use the Winston Churchill.”
Arab Iraqis who want to “keep” Kurdistan ought to thank the heavens for Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s new president and the party chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He belongs to the 1.3 percent of Iraqi Kurds who want to stay connected to Baghdad. The Kurds love Talabani, whom they affectionately call “Mam Jalal” (Uncle Jalal), for leading the militarily successful fight against Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, Masoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan and party chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, is playing the “bad cop” role. While Talabani is busy in Baghdad trying to hammer out the best federalism bargain the Kurds could ever hope for, Barzani broods in his mountain palace and openly threatens secession.
Not one Iraqi flag is flown in Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil, which doubles as the stronghold of Barzani’s KDP. Only maps will tell you that Erbil is part of Iraq. The Iraqi flag is flown on government buildings in Suleimaniya, the stronghold of the PUK. But it’s the old Iraqi flag, the pre-Saddam Iraqi flag, the one that doesn’t have Allahu Akbar scrawled across the middle of it.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has its own ministers. They report to no one in Baghdad. The Kurds have their own military. They have their own economy. They have their own internal border, and they are its only policemen. The Kurds even have their own foreign policy. Their government is internationally recognized. When Masoud Barzani travels to foreign capitals he is recognized as the President of Iraqi Kurdistan. The only thing the Kurds don’t have is Kirkuk.
The city of Kirkuk sits bang on top of one of Iraq’s biggest oil fields. It was always a Kurdish-majority city until Saddam Hussein ethnically-cleansed a good portion of the people who refused to change their ethnicity to “Arab.” When Kurds were forced out, Saddam moved Arabs, Stalinist-style, into the Kurds’ former homes.
Today the city is approximately 40 percent Kurdish, 30 percent Arab, and 20 percent Turkmen. The remaining 10 percent are composed of smaller minority groups. It’s a little Lebanon, in other words, where no one makes up the majority. It’s one of the worst tinderboxes in all of Iraq. Two violent incidents, from terrorism to kidnapping to sniping, occur every day in that city. And it’s getting worse.
The Kurds want it back. They don’t want to leave Iraq without the city they call “Our Jerusalem.” Nor will they tolerate a federal Iraq that doesn’t include Kirkuk in their autonomous region.
I asked KDP Minister Falah Bakir what “Our Jerusalem” was all about. Is Kirkuk some kind of cultural capital? Is there a historic significance to the city that I’m not aware of?
“No,” he said. “Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. But it isn’t ‘Jerusalem.’ Kirkuk is Kirkuk, just as Erbil is Erbil and Mosul is Mosul.” It’s just another Kurdish city, in other words. It was dubbed “Our Jerusalem” by Jalal Talabani as part of a PR campaign.
The Peshmerga can militarily take Kirkuk any time the order is given. But they’re holding back. The Kurds want to take the city peacefully and with honor.
The trouble with taking the city honorably is that they first want to kick out the Arabs moved there by Saddam Hussein. They don’t want to evict all the Arabs. As I’ve mentioned before, Iraqi Kurds have no interest in creating an ethnic-identity state. They only want to reverse Saddam’s Arabization campaign and make the city safe and secure as Erbil, Suleimaniya, and Dohok already are. Those Arabs who lived there before, those who are actually from there, are welcome to stay.
The Kurdistan Regional Government wants to financially compensate those Arabs who are asked to leave. Simply reversing one unfair population transfer with another isn’t right, and the Kurds know it. They might not even care about this at all if Kirkuk weren’t a playground for terrorists. But it is a dangerous place and there are no easy answers. The aftershocks of Saddam’s divide-and-rule strategy are still explosive.
Guardian report Michael Howard knows the city well. “Many of the Arabs I’ve spoken to in Kirkuk are aware that they are in someone else’s territory,” he told me.
At the same time the Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to push one dangerous population out of what they say is their area, they’re actively recruiting a safe population to move north and settle in Kurdistan.
Arab Christians from the south and the center of Iraq are actually given money and housing by the KRG if they move north. Insisting on a purely Kurdish region or a purely Muslim one is the last thing on the establishment’s mind. What they want is geographic federalism or sovereignty. And they need as many well-educated, competent, and trustworthy people as they can find. They don’t care about race, and they don’t care about religion. They are concerned strictly with numbers and security. It’s just that some groups are more trusted than others. Arab Christians will never join an Islamist jihad, as everyone knows. And the Kurds trust Arab Christians not to join the Baath either. Arab Muslims can and do move north to Kurdistan as well, but they need approval from the KRG and they are not given incentives.
Michael Howard thinks independence may be inevitable, but it’s a long way off. “This place has potential, but it’s not yet ready to stand on its own. It’s a work in progress, and it’s at the very beginning of that process.”
Masoud Barzani seems to know this, as well. But he won’t let anyone forget the end game: “Self-determination is the natural right of our people,” he said. “When the right time comes, it will become a reality.”
Postscript: If you like what I write, please don’t forget to hit the tip jar. Trips to Iraq don’t pay for themselves.