Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Turkey, Iraq and the future of Kirkuk

Turkey’s role in the future of Kirkuk, and Iraqi Kurdistan in general, was the topic of a lively discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars today. While this is a topic that can only thoroughly be examined when the perspectives of all actors involved are assessed, both panelists, Dr. Henri Barkey and Cengiz Candar, addressed the matter from a Turkish perspective.

Before even jumping into the issue of Kirkuk – a province set, under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, to vote on a referendum by year’s end to decide upon accession into Iraqi Kurdistan – Candar explained that, in Turkey, the word “Kurdistan” is considered taboo. The area is not even referred to as “Northern Iraq” – though it was for the purposes of this discussion. Rather, “Northern Iraq” is synonymous with “Iraq”, so the latter term is typically the only one used to refer to the area of Iraq governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, Turkey does not want to legitimize the KRG through official recognition.

The territorial integrity of Turkey, as explained by Candar, is framed by the original boundaries of the Ottoman territory. “Any change in the status quo of the Middle East might put Turkey under suspicion of its survival,” he said. For this reason, everything that happens in Iraqi Kurdistan becomes a domestic political issue in Turkey. Kirkuk is one such issue, which “risks becoming another Northern Cyprus problem,” said Barkey.

Kirkuk is a “powder keg” for Turkey, in part based on economic grounds – namely oil reserves in the area. Oil would provide the infrastructure for a completely independent KRG, which Turkey then fears would spark unrest among its own Kurdish population. Barkey argued that there is no evidence to support the notion that Kurds living within Turkey would want their own independent state. Rather, “Northern Iraq, to Kurds outside of Northern Iraq, is like Israel is to Jews,” Barkey said.

Both panelists agreed that the Kirkuk referendum needs to be postponed. The normalization and census steps laid out in the Iraqi constitution for completion before the referendum can occur will not happen, Barkey said. Instead, he forecasted, the referendum will be postponed on technical grounds in September. Candar went so far as to propose a resolution calling for Kirkuk province to be established as a separate federal entity with a rotating presidency. Kurds have to stop being greedy about the future of Kirkuk, he continued.

The issue is “not a zero-sum game,” Candar twice emphasized. Though Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened to invade Iraq depending on the outcome of Kirkuk and the continued terrorist activity of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), “an independent KRG can’t survive without being in close connection with Turkey,” Candar said. Both sides need to engage each other more – not by guns but by entrepreneurs, as Turkish businesses help stabilize Northern Iraq, he added.


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