Oil and the «Kurdish Jerusalem»
A conversation with Ornella Sangiovanni 28 September 2010

The Kurdish issue has once again emerged as the greatest factor of instability in Iraq. What are the tense points with the Arab part of the country?

The management of oil resources is at the origin of the controversies. For years Kurdistan has had a very liberal law for the exploitation of its oil that is open to foreign investments, unlike the central government in Baghdad, which still has not drafted a law on the exploitation of black gold. The government in Erbil has already signed agreements with about twenty oil companies without even consulting Baghdad. The central government considers these agreements illegal precisely because there was no previous consultation.

Basically the government of Kurdistan lays claim to the power to sign contracts with anyone it wishes to in exchange for a share of the revenue. The central government is requesting that regions should not be permitted to legislate as far as oil resources are concerned since black gold belongs to all the Iraqi people. This is the first element of conflict.

What are the other issues disputed?

One another issue, quite closely linked to control over oil, is that of the territories bordering with the autonomous region of Kurdistan, over which Erbil claims control. The most emblematic is the Kirkuk oil centre. This is a multiethnic city inhabited by Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. The Kurds see the city as their Jerusalem and would like one day for it to be the capital of an independent Kurdistan. During the eighties Saddam Hussein embarked on a massive Arabizing campaign, banishing thousands of Kurds and settling there Iraqis coming from the south. The other ethnic groups, such as the Turkmen, have very ancient roots in that area.

What would happen in the event of a Arab-Kurd war?

The Kurds have their own army with about 80,000 well-armed peshmergas. In many authoritative circles it is thought that a war between Arab Iraqis and Kurds for control over the so-called disputed territories would also involve other neighbouring countries such as Turkey, which does not wish to run the risk of having a Kurdish state on its border.

Would an independent Kurdistan not risk being weak and isolated?

Within the Kurd leadership itself there are different positions as far independence is concerned. There is the more “radical” wing led by the President of the Federal Region of Kurdistan, Massud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (the KPD), and a more “moderate” front close to the president of the Iraqi Republic, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the PUK). His party is aware that the independence dream remains a literary fairytale; also because, as rich as it may be, an independent Kurdistan would be landlocked and obliged to transport its oil across neighbouring and hostile states.

What is really at stake, more than total independence, is an exasperated federalism allowing regions to decide for themselves in managing their resources. When Kurdistan sees the possibility of this kind of federalism moving away, then it places on the table the issue of secession and tension rises.

Once the Americans withdraw in 2011, who will guarantee stability in those “disputed territories”? The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Raymond Odierno has proposed a peacekeeping force under the aegis of the United Nations. Is this a practical solution?

Odierno presented this idea of a peacekeeping force in an interview with AP as an alternative to the integration of the peshmerga in the regular Iraqi army, which in his opinion is more desirable. There is in fact serious concern about the consequences of a total withdrawal of American troops. If tension between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs remains high, in the absence of a buffer force the situation could spiral totally out of control.

How would a buffer force be considered by these two parties?

Following Odierno’s statements, the Arab press reported conflicting reactions. In northern Iraq, at the border with Kurdistan, in the province of Ninevah with its mixed population, there were reports of total rejection by Arabs who are afraid that a buffer force might divide the province. The Kurds instead, seem favourable. The Turkmens on the other hand would prefer the situation to be resolved before the American troops withdraw.

In Kurdistan itself the spokesman for the peshmerga has said there is no need for a peacekeeping force because with the new government all issues should be resolved internally.

A new government that four months after the elections has not yet been formed…

Basically it is unclear who should be appointed to form it. In theory it should be up to the Iraqiya list, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who won the elections, but only by two seats and is therefore deprived of a parliamentary majority capable of forming a government alone. Only two seats away there is the outgoing premier Nouri al Maliki, who absolutely wants a new mandate. To achieve this objective he has tried to unite his coalition with the other Shiite forces, but this is working out very badly, especially due to serious disagreement regards to who should be the candidate prime minister, and the group led by Moqtada al Sadr will not support Maliki for a new mandate. A further obstacle comes from the bonds in the model for attributing the most important appointments on an ethnical denominational basis. Iraq, with its “Lebanese-styled” model envisages a president of the Kurdish Republic, a president of the Sunni parliament and a Shiite prime minister. A great deal was said during the election campaign to overcome these denominational restrictions, but in reality little has changed.

Does this political model compromise the country’s unity?

Rather than announce a division of the country, it results in heralding an apportionment of important appointments on an ethnical-denominational basis. And yet, Allawi won the last elections with a nationalist list. This is significant precisely because by playing the card of nationalism, Allawi managed to succeed in the Sunni areas and also in the Shiite south. His coalition also included a group of nationalist Sunni forces, some linked to armed resistance groups. This makes any eventual alienation of Allawi far more dangerous. If those who put down their weapons to give politics a chance realise that no change comes through voting, then they will pick up their Kalashnikovs again.

Translation by Francesca Simmons



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