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April 22, 2009 UN says Iraq should share Kirkuk or give it autonomy

The Financial Times - By Anna Fifield in Beirut 

The United Nations is suggesting to the Iraqi central and Kurdish regional governments that they either share the disputed territory of Kirkuk on an equal basis, or allow it to become a semi-autonomous region.

The two options are the “most feasible” in a long-awaited 450-page report from the UN on the northern city of Kirkuk and surrounding areas, the subject of a bitter territorial dispute which partly centres on its huge oil reserves.

With both sides claiming it as their own, the area has been the location of sectarian clashes, not between Sunnis and Shias but between Arabs and Kurds, as security gains are made in other parts of the country.

The report has not been made public but the Financial Times understands that the UN has suggested four “compromise options” to Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Irbil.

Of the two most feasible options, one involves Kirkuk having a “dual linkage” to both Baghdad and Irbil. This would mean it was governed jointly by both authorities, rather than being wholly ruled by Irbil, as the province of Dohuk is now, or wholly ruled by Baghdad, like Anbar, for example.

The second most likely option involves giving Kirkuk a degree of autonomy, which would see it become a stand-alone special region in the way that Kurdistan is now. Kurdistan has its own regional government security forces, and operates almost entirely independently of Baghdad.

The UN report is “not prescriptive” but lays out options for the two authorities to go away and consider. “Nobody is going to be fully satisfied because no one side is going to find that all its demands have been met,” a UN official told the FT.

Announcing that the UN had presented reports to the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil, Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special representative in Iraq, said on Wednesday that the UN hoped Arabs and Kurds would use the reports to start a process of concrete dialogue.

“We are all too aware that tensions have recently risen in parts of the disputed areas, and also that there are more issues than just the territorial ones that divide the parties,” said Mr de Mistura.

“That is why we have done the work in the way we have, and that is why we are hoping that sustained and serious dialogue will now follow,” he said in a statement.

The area has a complicated history that has so far proven impossible to reconcile.

Kirkuk and other nearby oil towns such as Khanaqeen were “Arabised” by Saddam Hussein, who forced Kurds to leave and moved in Arabs from Iraq’s south in an effort to change the demographics. Kurds make up 20 per cent of Iraq’s population.

Kurdistan, whose people were killed by the thousands under Saddam, has long been trying to win the cities back.

“We are confident that it’s part of Kurdistan. If they [other parties in Iraq] think the Kurds have to give up on it that will not happen,” Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, told the FT last month.

The Kurdistan regional government has been pushing for a vote to allow Kirkuk residents to decide whether they become part of the northern region, but this has been repeatedly postponed, amid concerns that Kurds and Arabs must first agree a political settlement to prevent a conflagration.

Kirkuk was excluded from nationwide provincial polls held on January 31 because of the ongoing disputes. The area also has a sizeable Turkmen population, who want a say.

Athough Kurds say that Kirkuk, sometimes called “Iraq’s Jerusalem”, is their ancestral capital, the allure of area’s oil reserves to both sides can not be overestimated. The Kirkuk oil field is thought to have a production capacity of about 1m barrels a day.

Under the constitution’s revenue-sharing formula, Kurdistan receives 17 per cent of all Iraqi oil revenue, but many Kurds think their economy deserves more. Some Arab politicians, meanwhile, are calling for the Kurds’ share to be reduced to 12 per cent.

Oil legislation that would ensure a fair distribution of wealth – a key to the country’s long-term stability – has been blocked, with Kurdish officials unwilling to give Baghdad veto power over the development of the industry within their territory, and the central government insisting that it must direct the oil industry’s development throughout Iraq.

The KRG has signed dozens of oil contracts, which the central government has refused to recognise.

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