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Iraq's Kirkuk remains in legal limbo

Claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, oil-rich Kirkuk remains one of Iraq's thorniest issues 10 years after the invasion. DW spoke with the different communities' most senior representatives about the region's problems.

Falah Salah was only a boy when he saw oil flow from the backyard of his family's home in Kirkuk: "One day we got up and there was a pool of black mud at the entrance. My father told us not to tell anyone," recalls Salah.

The family's discretion was understandable. "If the government had found out we would have been evicted and displaced to another neighborhood," explains Salah, now 38.

The Salahs' story is just one of thousands experienced by Kirkuk families displaced because of the wealth beneath their feet. That was the price to pay for daring to sink foundations on one of the largest oil reserves in the Middle East.

"10,000 dinars and land to build a house in Kirkuk." That was Saddam Hussein's offer to thousands of Arab families from the south of the country back in the 1970s and 80s. These policies of Arabization meant uprooting local Kurds and Turkmen.

Today Kirkuk is still stranded in a legal limbo between Baghdad and Erbil - the capital of the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq.

A referendum originally scheduled for November 2007 would have decided if Kirkuk would be integrated into the Kurdish north or stay under the control of Baghdad. However, before the vote can take place, the controversial Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution states that measures should be taken to counterbalance the Arabization campaigns under Saddam Hussein.

Over the years as deadlines to meet these obligations come and go, both sides have dug in. Kurdish troops are deployed in the north of Kirkuk, while Baghdad has stationed a military contingent of exclusively Shiite Arabs in the south.

"We have no other choice because Baghdad does not respect the constitutional agreements," says Khaled Shwani, an MP with the Kurdish Alliance that represents the main coalition of Kurdish parties.

soldiers at a gas well Copyright: Karlos Zurutuza, DW Mitarbeiter, Kirkuk, March 2013

Kirkuk's oil wealth has forced the displacement of thousands of Iraqis

"Arab families are being given US$20,000 to move back to their native regions but they are still here," says Shwani. He also accuses Baghdad of "deliberately delaying" the constitutional requirement of addressing the demographic issues in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish MP can hardly hide his dismay about the complex status quo. "Kirkuk is the black well in which Iraq finds its reflection. There is no political agreement, no dialogue and no confidence between the different communities."

Lessons from Sudan

The ongoing tension in the areas disputed by both Baghdad and Erbil is fuelled by the anti-government demonstrations in Anbar, Nineveh and Salahadin - the mainly Sunni regions in the west of the country.

Demonstrations in Kirkuk are much more modest due to its heterogeneous population, however in bloody incident the local coordinator of the protests, Bunyan al Ubeidy, was gunned down outside his home on March 9.

"It's our first martyr in this new phase of uprisings," Ahmed al Ubeidy tells DW. Ubeidy is a member of the same tribe as Bunyan al Ubeidy and is the spokesperson of the Arab Joint Meeting - the main Arab alliance in Kirkuk province.

The political activist rejects any sectarian grouping and emphasizes the participation of both Sunni and Shiite Arabs. As for the most desirable solution for Kirkuk, Ubeidy points to the Sudanese district of Abyei, a demilitarized zone between Sudan and South Sudan which has a special status.

"We have already forwarded this proposal to the UNAMI (United Nations Mission in Iraq). We want a buffer region between Erbil and Baghdad governed by representation quotas: 30.2 percent for Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and 0.4 percent for Christians," details Ubeidy. "Article 140 expired in 2007 so new proposals are needed," he adds.

However, the senior leader brands as "illegal" the deployment of both Kurdish soldiers and Arab troops in the area.

"[Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki has deployed that military contingent in the region under the pretext of ensuring our security but his sole purpose is to protect his regime in case the sectarian crisis deepens," explains the Arab spokesman.

The Turkmen model

An armed member of the Iraqi Turkmen Front Copyright: Karlos Zurutuza, DW Mitarbeiter, Kirkuk, March 2013

The Iraqi Turkmen Front are calling for a decentralized form of government

Hundreds of turquoise flags on lampposts and balconies challenge the hegemonic grey to remind us that the Turkmens are the majority in the Tarik Baghdad neighborhood, a district in southwest Kirkuk. In Kirkuk there are tens of thousands of descendants of the former Ottoman merchants scattered along the Silk Road.

According to the city's last census, conducted by the British in 1957, Turkmens number around half a million, the largest ethnic group in Kirkuk after the Kurds.

Arshad al Salihi is chairman of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the main political party of the Iraqi Turkmen, and also a member of parliament in Baghdad.

"The Turkmen have suffered both Saddam's Arabization campaigns and those of at the hands of the Kurds. The inhabitants of the citadel of Kirkuk have always been Turkmen while the Kurds came from the surrounding villages," says Salehi.

"Kirkuk, Baghdad, Ramadi ... all these districts should work as small federal entities within a decentralized Iraq. It is the only formula that fits the complex diversity of the country," he explains .

Nonetheless, Salihi also acknowledges that certain Turkmen sectors would favour integrating into the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The conditions, though, are clear. "There must be Turkmens in high rank positions, Turkmen culture and language must be supported and we have to retrieve the areas stolen by the Kurds."

A place in Eden

Election boards Copyright: DW/Munaf Al Saidy

Kirkuk's legal limbo means it won't hold local elections

After the decimated Mandaean community in Iraq - nine out of 10 have either died or fled since 2003 - Christians have perhaps suffered most over the past decade in Iraq.

Imad Yokhana Yago, a member of parliament in Baghdad for the Assyrian Democratic Movement denounces "genocide at the hands of Islamists" and the "continuous mass flight" of his people since 2003. But when asked about his solution for Kirkuk, Yago sounds more conciliatory.

"I see no need to put barriers between us. We can live together as we have done for centuries," says the Assyrian leader.

But even Yago dares to dream of an exclusive project for his dwindling community. After the brutal suicide attack that killed over 50 Christians in Baghdad in October 2010, community leaders demanded an autonomous region in the plains of the neighboring region of Nineveh. It's the spot where the Bible locates the Garden of Eden but also another disputed land between Kurds and Arabs today. Many Eastern Christians claim that such a region could become a "ghetto" for their people. But Yago does not agree.

"A Christian autonomous region would protect us and serve as a buffer zone between Kurds and Arabs," he says. "We are afraid, and not just us Christians, but all Iraqis."

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