The Looming Pitched Battle for the City of Kirkuk

· dKo journal, Edgewise, Paleoblogs

I’ve been following the thread of the story of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, and it seriously looks as if in late 2007 that city is going to move Iraq into a new, bloodier, level of warfare: pitched battle for territory, with full-scale armies on the attack.
It is hard to believe, even for me: If Kirkuk is really this alarming, how could it be getting so little attention? But, here are the signs.

Kirkuk is a city of 1 million that controls 40% of Iraq’s oil reserves and 70% of its natural gas.
It is located just south of the northern provinces slated to become the Kurdish third of the new federated Iraq. The southern third is oil rich, and will make up the pure Shiite component of the federation. In the middle third there is no oil, unless there is Kirkuk.
“Kurdish politicians regard Kirkuk as key to their sustained autonomy; to more militant Kurds, the city is a cornerstone of a future Kurdistan nation.” (“Tensions Simmer as Kurds Reclaim Kirkuk,” 5/12/2006, Los Angeles Times, Solomon Moore)
“Many Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, are adamantly opposed to relinquishing Kirkuk, among them Sadr and his political followers.” (“Shiite Militias Move Into Oil-Rich Kirkuk, Even as Kurds Dig In,” April 25, 2006, Washington Post Foreign Service, Jonathan Finer)
“Iraq’s constitution, …calls for a referendum on the future of the region by the end of 2007, but many key details are in dispute, such as who will be permitted to vote.” (WP)
“Kirkuk, with a population of about 1 million, has long been home to a mix of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and a smattering of Christians….[A]bout 250,000 Kurdish residents [who had been forced] to give up their homes to Arabs in the 1970s…. have returned to Kirkuk…along with as many as 100,000 newcomers.” (LAT)
“Kurdish leaders speak openly of their intention to use force if necessary to gain control of the city, which they consider the historical capital of a vast Kurdish nation also extending into Iran and Turkey…Kurds have already demonstrated their impatience with Baghdad and the U.S.-led reconstruction effort by independently approving at least two oil exploration deals in Kurdistan.” (LAT)
The Kurds already have in place a serious regular army of as many as 100,000 (NYT), the peshmerga “militia,” created in the US protected No-Fly Autonomous Zone, while Hussein was still in power. Much of it has already morphed into the Iraqi Army in their region.
The diffuse Sunni “Insurgency” will certainly concentrate its attention on Kirkuk. It is the only potential oil resource of their middle-third of the country. Even now, Sunni “Insurgents” keep oil production and transport there at a standstill, through sabotage, infiltration, and killings. Real Kurdish economic control would require at the very least a bloody and prolonged counterinsurgency, even after annexation.
For the Shiite forces of Moqtada al Sadr, their primary base is not in the southern third of Iraq, but in Baghdad’s Sadr City. “Sadr’s representative in [Kirkuk], Abdul Karim Khalifa, told U.S. officials that more armed loyalists were on the way and that as many as 7,000 to 10,000 Shiite residents were prepared to fight alongside the Mahdi Army if called upon. Legions more Shiite militiamen would push north from Baghdad’s Sadr City slum…” (WP) And in those circumstances, it would be hard to imagine the competing Shiite Badr brigades just sitting things out.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine the Shiite-led Iraqi federal government doing any kind of neutral “peacekeeping” here. The 2007 preelection census (voter registration) will surely be politicised, ill-defined, contested, and inconclusive–something the usual election observers will be ill-equipped to “monitor. ” Even if it requires a parliamentary realignment of Shiites and Sunnis together against the Kurds, the Iraqi government is at least as likely to actively back the “Arab side” to “enforce law. and order” (according to their own interpretation of events). Or, it is also possible the government would become procedurally frozen and officially immobilized. But then its component militias will simply open out and go to war.
Turkey has already threatened to send its own army in response to any Kurdish annexation of Kirkuk. Turkey is driven by fear of its own rebellious Kurdish minority, ranged along the Iraqi border. They, in turn, would be almost sure to wage at least a local war across Turkish supply lines.
Even if the US wanted to rush its forces back to respond the crisis, whom would they fight for or against, and why?
I know I am assuming that any compromise (joint sovereignty? revenue-sharing?) will be unacceptable to some or all of the parties. Maybe not. But, personally, I just don’t see where compromise will come from. It will take more from the United States than faith-based projections of stability, “standing up and standing down.” (We classify the city as already stabilized, and our troops have largely moved out.) National politics and the press need to face the the reality of the Kirkuk conflict, study it, anticipate it, deal with it. The arrogance of our ignorance has already caused immeasurable grief.